The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

“How do you explain the unique physiology of girlhood friendships, the telepathy formed fast and fierce between hometown strangers?”

In A Prayer for Travelers Ruchika Tomar disrupts the traditional coming-of-age story by rearranging the chronological order of her narrative, so that the novel’s opening chapter is actually chapter number 31. The non-chronological chapter order takes some getting used to, and there were times when I struggled to keep track of ‘when’ we were or the context of a certain scene. But, this structure, which swings readers back and forth in time, propels A Prayer for Travelers, adding a layer of tension to Cale’s story.

A Prayer for Travelers transports readers to a small and isolated town in Nevada. After being abandoned by her mother Cale lives with her grandfather Lamb and grows up to become a solitary girl who spends most of her time reading. Rather than making friends, she watches from afar others, in particular, three other girls who are a year or so older than her. At times Cale seems to yearn to be part of their clique, but more often than not seems satisfied in observing them at a distance. It is magnetic and freewheeling Penélope Reyes who Cale is fascinated by the most.

After Lamb, Cale’s only point of reference, is diagnosed with cancer Cale feels lost. It is Penny who Cale clings to. The two form a tentative friendship while waitressing at the same diner. Over the course of the summer, the two spend most of their time together, yet Penny remains a cypher of sorts. After one of their escapades ends in act of horrific violence, the bond between the two is tested. The morning after, Penny goes missing and no one but Cale seems interested in knowing what happened to her.

Each chapter takes readers to a different period in Cale’s life so that it is only by the end of the novel that we gain a full picture of her childhood, her time with Penny, and the events leading to and after Penny’s disappearance. This unorthodox structure lends an air of mystery both to Cale’s life and to the people around her. Early on we are given hints of what is to come or what has gone before, but it is only around the halfway mark that readers will be able to really catch up with Cale’s story.
In addition to this clever structure, Tomar succeeds in bringing to life Cale’s stultifying environment. From the desert that surrounding her dead-end town to the heat that makes people take cover indoors. It is no place for young people, as there are few if any jobs going and one is always under scrutiny. Things are done a certain way and anyone who tries to ‘upset’ the system incurs the risk of angering the wrong kind of people. As Cale is quick to discover, the police are of little help.
Cale’s interactions with others, from the detectives to Penny’s old friends and a classmate of theirs, are underlined by a sense of unease. This adds to the story’s already atmospheric setting, as we see just how isolating and brutal Cale’s town is, especially for girls like her and Penny.
Although the relationship between Cale and Penny is the undoubted core of the novel, their feelings towards each other are not always easy to discern. In many ways, their bond remains elusive just like the girls themselves. Both Cale and Penny are difficult to pin down yet Tomar captivates many of their anxieties and desires.
Their experiences are not easy to read. Cale’s secluded childhood with her grandfather leaves her in many ways unprepared for ‘life’. Most of the time she doesn’t know what she wants from the future and spends her time obsessing over Penny.
Both Cale and Penny go through traumatic experiences, each reacting in a different way. Tomar shows how the victim of a sexual assault will often blame themselves and how blind others can be to someone’s despair and trauma.
The ‘resolution’ to the mystery felt almost anticlimactic. Then, perhaps I was so focused on keeping track of ‘when’ I was that I may not have been able to fully appreciate those chapters.
Other than the ‘ending’ and the inclusion of visuals chapters (which just had an image or one/two words) I found this novel be truly engrossing. A teensy part of me wished that Cale’s feelings towards Penny had been explored in more depth (her fixation on Penny is quite something).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as this kind of structure will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, if you are looking for a coming-of-age/suspense story in a similar vein to Winter’s Bone and A Crooked Tree, you might want to give A Prayer for Travelers a try. I will be definitely re-reading this as I loved Tomar’s piercing writing and seesaw storyline as well as her story’s focus on female friendships, trauma, and survival.

my rating: ★★★¾

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Six-Gun Snow White : Book Review

Untitled drawing (9)Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

“She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.”

Valent has given a Western spin to an old European tale. I enjoyed the way in which Valente juxtaposes a gritty setting against her lush writing style, and it is almost unnerving the way she can describe horrible things in such a beautiful way. At times, I did find some scenes and metaphors to be gratuitously graphic.
The first part of this novella was really strong. It is narrated by Snow White herself and she recounts how her father married by force a Crow woman (her mother). The way he fetishes her beauty and appearance was truly sickening, and Snow White is always made to feel ‘other’ and ‘alien’ by her father and his servants .
Snow White’s mother dies and her father (Mr. H) marries again. His new wife (known as Mrs. H) begins abusing Snow White, pretending that she is ‘teaching her the ways to become a woman’. Altering physical abuse with a torrent of dehumanising insults and actions (she bathes Snow White in milk in order to make her skin paler) all of the things that Snow White is made to endure were hard to stomach.
The narrative switches to a third perspective which created a distance between the events of the story and the reader (me). There was almost a joke-y tone which went at odds with the Snow White’s serious narration.
The last part was really…pointless? The story comes across as meandering and unfocused. Characters have few (if any) layers, they share the same bland and unfixed personality, and our main protagonist, Snow White, seems quick to forget Mrs. H’s abuse and acts merely under the command of the narrative. What of her will? She is an accessory to her own story, an object rather than a subject.
All in all, this is the type of novella that carelessly tosses characters about, throwing one too many pointlessly extravagant (or occasionally grotesque) observations that have little impact on the overall story but only serve to distract me from the story’s action. The narrative favours the language over its plot or characters. The beautiful phrases soon become overindulgent and repetitive.
Great concept, poor execution.

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