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.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anna Quindlen's Still Life with Bread Crumbs

On Thursday afternoon thirty-six men and women arrived at the South County Regional Library eager to talk about Rachel Joyce's heart-rending debut novel, "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry." I felt right at home, among old friends and new, as I slid back into my role as facilitator, doing what I always did best as a librarian, sharing my love for the written word. I realized, as we discussed the afternoon away, how desperate we readers are for kind authors. Rachel Joyce is one, Anna Quindlen is another.

Anna Quindlen.jpg

I have been following Ms. Quindlen since her Pulitzer Prize winning days as a journalist. I don't miss any of her books. Should I explain what I mean by a kind author? I love a writer who cares enough about the characters he or she creates that he'll allow them to struggle through the dips in life, as we all must, but still arrive at the end of the tunnel with some hope for the future. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I believe I've outgrown my penchant for the persistent dark side.

Harold Fry was one such character. Rebecca Winter is another. At sixty-one, her once brilliant career apparently ebbing, no longer able to take the balance in her check book for granted, the renowned photographer suddenly finds herself among the so-called sandwich generation. Her mother's stay in assisted living is assisted by Rebecca's royalty checks, and her son Ben, though ostensibly on his own, is never averse to a helping hand.

 To stay on top of the bills, Rebecca takes a step considered drastic in her social circle. She rents out her gorgeous Manhattan apartment for a sinful fee and moves upstate to a crumbling cottage in a nowhere town where she can re-evaluate her life and, just maybe, find a new direction for her art.

It's fun to watch Rebecca, the city girl, cope with the raccoons in the attic, the dearth of cell towers and Internet connections, the quiet that opens up the ears to new sounds: a deer startling through the woods, evening owls, the howl of a lonely dog. There are the requisite characters so typical of small towns, each with a back story worthy of exploration, from Sarah who owns the tea shop/scone bakery, to Tad, the lonely clown who makes everyone happy except himself.

And then there's Jim Bates, the catalyst for all that will follow. A sorrowful man, wise beyond his forty-some years, we intuit that he carries a heavy burden which reveals itself over time. He and Rebecca haunt the same woods and ultimately come to know each other through a business deal that Rebecca needs financially and, perhaps, Jim needs emotionally. Together, they sit in a tree stand for days at a time, he tracking bald eagles for a conservation group, she photographing them.

"Still Life with Bread Crumbs" is a novel  full of love, life, and reality, an examination of people who have trouble seeing what's right in front of their eyes because they're so busy looking to the future rather than being, well, still. It's a book about connections almost missed because of pride or prejudice. It's a book that you may find, as I did, you'll read in one sitting, place aside on your table, stare into space, and sigh with pure satisfaction.

Apologies in advance if you don't hear from me for a while. I finally got Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" and am 100 pages in. I'm gobsmacked by the writing and fully expect to be enthralled for the next 700 pages. Thank you for reading.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Year She Left Us

Tolstoy observed in his classic "Anna Karenina" that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Lately, I have been inundated with stories of unhappy families. I'm afraid that I had to give a less than stellar review to "Pioneer Girl," a forthcoming novel from Bich Minh Nguyen which surprised me with what I felt were too many stereotypes of the Asian-American immigrant family, in this case, Vietnamese.

But then I received an advanced copy of Kathryn Ma's "The Year She Left Us," which will be out in May, and I was delighted.

Yes, Ms. Ma writes of another unhappy family, Chinese-American this time, but the narrative just swept me up. In two days I became acquainted with the Kongs, and though I never fully understood their dynamic, I felt empathy for their struggle. Four strong women, extremely different personalities, mothers and daughters, caught between the present and the past, compete for our ear as alternating chapters reflect the views of each. It's Charlie, younger sister of Les, a California court judge who has difficulty leaving her robes at work, who's the catalyst for the action when she decides to adopt a baby from China.

Charlie is the bleeding heart of the bunch, a single lawyer who works within the court system, specializing in patching broken families back together. Her love for her newly adopted daughter, Ari, is immediate and visceral and her disapproving family soon falls into line. Ari is showered with attention from her doting Aunt Les and her imperious Grandmother Kong, while Charlie does all the right things, following advice books to the tee, never letting Ari forget where she came from. But Charlie is so intent upon being the perfect adoptive mom that she fails to notice that Ari is slipping away from her. After Charlie and Ari travel to China with a large group of American adoptees, visiting the orphanage where Ari had been abandoned as a newborn, Ari begins to spiral completely and inexplicably out of control.

Kathryn Ma manages to take us inside Charlie's suffering as her daughter rejects her, running away, refusing to communicate, in her bid to find herself. Unwanted advice comes from every quarter, especially from Charlie's perfect older sister Les (though she's never raised a child of her own), causing a rift that will take years to heal. But Charlie is no stranger to loss and she's wise enough to know that she can't cage Ari. She courageously allows her daughter the freedom to flounder and, in so doing, learns much about her own strength and that of her inscrutable mother as well.

This is a poignant look at one family, informed by its Chinese culture. It doesn't pretend to speak for all or to generalize. Themes of abandonment, self-loathing, and an inability to assimilate would normally indicate a depressing read, but somehow Ms. Ma's talent lifts this story above the typical dysfunctional family genre to something hopeful and redemptive. Look for it soon.