Monday, February 24, 2014

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's Solid Gold Novel

Carel Fabritius. The Goldfinch.
It's been called "dazzling, rapturous, and symphonic," (Michiko Kakutani in the "New York Times") so where do I go from there?  For me, "The Goldfinch," will likely be the standard by which I measure every other book that I read this year. And that hardly seems fair since this is such an imaginative, over-the-top novel that it defies categorizing.
Readers seem to either rhapsodize or sling insults at "The Goldfinch." I understand that not all of you will be willing to put in the time needed to absorb this 800-page behemoth but, if you're the type of reader who wants to be snatched by the hand and drawn into a magical world that won't let you go, then you must wait your turn in line at the library or go out and plunk down the money right now. I think I broke a personal record by burning through it in a week.
I cannot, will not, simply outline the story for you. How could any reviewer do that with a novel so overflowing with themes of loss, memory, beauty, love, perception, and friendship. What I will tell you is that Theo Decker is a character I could have spent time with forever. I never tired of his voice, from the precocious 13-year old to the 30-something adult.
But, to set the stage, I will explain that Theo and his mother become separated while perusing an exhibit of Dutch paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, all because he has become entranced by a wraith like redhead and failed to follow his mom into the museum shop. There is a sudden, violent explosion and then there is darkness. A dazed and confused Theo awakens later to find that only he and one other person, gravely injured, are conscious and have been overlooked by rescuers. Theo sits by Welty, listening to his dying ramblings and the trajectory of Theo's life, from that moment, is forever altered.
The canvas of the painting, "The Goldfinch," lies unscathed in the rubble. With his dying breath the old gentleman seems to be telling Theo to take it, to save it, perhaps? I don't know that Ms. Tartt ever really answers that question. She will leave you asking many more before she is through with this tour-de-force of storytelling. This painting of the tiny bird chained to its perch will inform every action, no matter how self-destructive, that Theo takes for the next twenty years.
There have been a few justified critiques of the novel that involve the editing. I'll admit that Theo's sojourn in Las Vegas with his dead-beat dad and Xandra, a sad, sorry excuse for a step-mother, went on way too long. But during that time, Theo meets Boris, a wildly off-the-charts character who will loom large, on and off, in Theo's life. Their unlikely friendship is exquisitely drawn with all of the teen-age angst and homosexual overtones that lurk under the surface of two boys who spend every waking moment together.
Another glorious character is Mr. Hobart, Welty's partner in the furniture restoration business, who takes Theo in, rescuing him from New York's child protection services, hilariously sent up in the guise of two social workers who spout outrageous platitudes to the newly motherless boy. Hobie's goodness is an oasis for Theo and the place where he learns the fine art of restoration, of furniture and of the soul.
The beauty of Donna Tartt's latest novel is that it can be read on several levels. It's thoroughly enjoyable as a Dickensian romp, as Stephen King referred to it in his own review in the Times, or it can be parsed as a treatise on beauty, art, and the ownership of it. You know, what good is a painting is it sits in some collector's vault? Isn't art meant to be shared with the world? I think that it is, so I thank Donna Tartt for working on this novel for the last ten years and finally sharing it with the world.


Andrea said...

Sally, I don't tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I just sent the link to members of a new book discussion club here. We are meeting for the first time on Tuesday.

Sallyb said...

Oh Andrea, how delightful. Your ears should have been burning today as Ann, Betsy and I were talking about when we could all get away together to come see you. I think this will need a phone call. Will do that soon. Love you.