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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Interpreter of Maladies: Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s restrained storytelling is a pleasure to read. I find her sparse yet elegant prose to be truly sublime. In these short stories, Lahiri demonstrates her eye for detail as she captures with crystal clarity moments of seeming mundanity. By focusing on ordinary moments, such as a family meal, and places, the inside of a car or a condominium, Lahiri succeeds in bringing to life her characters, their environments, and their experiences. Her subtle irony makes her stories all the more engrossing. With nuance and insight, Lahiri delves into her characters’ outer and inner lives. While Lahiri does describe many of her characters’ feelings and thoughts, she also allows room for ambiguity. It’s impressive how her stories strike me both for their clarity and opaqueness.

As with The Namesake within this collection Lahiri explores cultural and generational divides as well as the conflict between familial and personal identity. Many of the characters grapple with grief, loneliness, rootlessness, and heartache. A sense of sadness, nostalgia even, permeates many of these narratives, which made them all the more poignant. My personal favourites were ‘A temporary matter’, ‘When Mr. Pirzada came to dine’, and ‘Sexy’.
This is a truly superb collection one that I would definitely recommend to loves of the short story format.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton — book review

“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

A few months ago I read Edith Wharton’s novella, Summer. Although I thought its obliqueness to be rather fascinating, I was frustrated by its relatively short length, and thought that the characters would have benefitted from having some more depth. The Age of Innocence, by comparison, is a much more detailed story, one that focused on a cast of interesting characters, who regardless of their likability, struck me as incredibly realistic. Through their words, mannerism, and motivations, Wharton makes her characters into fully formed individuals.

Newland Archer is one of the novel’s central figures. Archer is a gentleman lawyer who will soon announce his favourable marriage to the young May Welland. All is seemingly well until May’s cousin returns to America to escape from an inauspicious marriage to a Polish Count. Rumours and gossip abound, and to begin with Archer is merely vexed by the attention that his social circle seems to paying to her. Yet, he soon becomes intrigued by the way in which Countess Ellen Olenska seems either oblivious or uncaring of the rules of civility that dictated New York during the 1870s.

For the majority of the narrative Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska exhibit great restraint over their attraction and romantic feelings for one another. Their relationship is one that is punctuated by periods of tenderness, broodiness, fascination, and abnegation. There are stretches of time in which they hardly see one another, and yet they remain quietly devoted to the other.
Archer, through the tumultuous passion he harbours towards Countess Olenska, seeks to escape, if not transcend, from the artificiality and limitations he perceives within his society. Countess Olenska becomes his objet petit a, that is an unattainable object of desire, who he desperately longs for perhaps because he knows that a future with her would be impossible. It is the very act of longing for her that allows him to envision a future free of all that he finds wanting in May Welland his actual fiancee.

It is the very forbidden nature of his feelings for Countess Olenska that seems to inflame his passion for her. He assigns to her the role of ‘beloved other’, regarding their ‘affair’ as an inescapable outcome of their ‘true love’.
Alienated by the majority of her relatives, regarded as ‘other’, Countess Olenska is lonely and unhappy. I admired both her strengths and her weaknesses, and found her to be on of the few characters to actually have dignity. Even in America, in other continent from the Count, she seems unable to escape from the shadow of their unhappy marriage. In Archer she finds an ally of sorts, yet, her experiences prevent her from falling into old patterns.
Archer, on the other hand, attempts to escape from the strictures imposed on him by his family, acquaintances, and New York’spolitesociety, by engaging in an illicit affair which if made public would likely ruin his reputation and career. In his feelings for Countess Olenska, Archer experiences a romantic love untethered by concepts of duty and tradition; while his engagement with May is dictated by notions of propriety and decorum, Archer believes that his relationship with Countess Olenska is unaffected by the social constraints and rituals that otherwise mar his existence.
Archer’s interactions with Countess Olenska provide him with a taste of freedom: while his conversations with the naive and sheltered May are interspersed with platitudes and empty phrases, Archer’s exchanges with Countess Olenska—even when consisting of a couple of words—seem to carry depths of meaning. Her language, as well as her very glances and expressions, are loaded with ‘real’ emotions, emotions which Archer believes to be absent in May. His fiancee’s personality seems to him a blank slate, one that he ought to fill.

In spite of his dishonesty readers will find it difficult to condemn or judge Archer. Tired of the formulaic dynamics of his world, burdened by ennui and disenchantment, Archer feels truly awake and alive when he is in the proximity of Countess Olenska. He grows jealous of men such as Julius Beaufort and often makes unfavourable comparison between Countess and May.
The difficulties Archer and the Countess experience are often a result of their own preoccupation with one another. They always perceive something or someone to be in the way of a possible future together (May, Count Olenski, the Mingotts, the scandal itself).
As the narrative progresses we begin to see that Archer’s impression of the falsehoods within his society and of other people’s character may not be as clear-cut as he thinks. For example, Archer believes that May’s ‘ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination’. Her later actions however suggests that her ‘intuitions’ may be more deliberate than accidental.
The novel examines the way in which desire and happiness are obstructed and influenced by social conventions and notions of duty (what Archer wants for himself vs. what society wants for Archer). Yet, Wharton doesn’t suggest that a union between Archer and Countess Olenska would have a harmonious outcome.
It is the very fact that their romance is ‘doomed’, weighed down by denial, guilt, and regret, that makes it all the more ‘sublime’, it is the pain that accompanies their unfulfilled love makes it all the more vivid.
While Archer’s relationship to May seems to consist of perfunctory speeches (ones which, much to Archer’s displeasure, echo those between May’s own parents), his interactions with Countess Olenska are often ‘clandestine’, which is why they leave such a lasting impression on him. If urgency and secrecy no longer enveloped their meetings, would Archer feel the same passion for the Countess?
In one of the very first pages we are told that Archer was “at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation”. Paradoxically, Archer draws more pleasure from the act of yearning, for something or someone, than from having or experiencing that which he yearns for. In other words, the idea of a future union with the Countess seems to Archer better than an actual union with her. This deferral of his own satisfaction brings about a painful sort of happiness—what could be described as jouissance, that is a ‘backhanded enjoyment’—as it it the very act of longing for the Countess that enables him to entertain the idea that a true and meaningful union can be possible. However, later on in the narrative, Archer seems to want to break free from this self-sabotaging (that is of finding fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment).
The narrative, and the characters themselves, seems to have a certain foreknowledge regarding the outcome of this affair. Still, even if we know what their romance will lead to, we still feel invested in their relationship and it is up to the reader to decided whether Archer and the Countess are victims of their time and circumstances or whether they are the ones responsible for their own misfortune.

Wharton’s rendition of 1870s New York is a strikingly nostalgic one. Yet, in spite of the wistful tone the narrative has towards this Gilded Age, Archer’s story critiques the way in which the customs of his time perpetuated this ideal of a ‘pure’ bride, one whose innocence was, if not performed, carefully fabricated by those around her.

“Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

Wharton’s commentary on class and gender emphasised the way in which individuals were restricted by the time’s social norms. The story also presents us with a compelling interplay of duty and desire, of hope and dissatisfaction, and of passion and indifference. The contrast between American and European values seems to be embodied by the two women in Archer’s life: May (as the American ideal) and Countess Olenska (as the worldly, if not ‘exotic’, European).

While there are countless of literary works featuring alienated heroes and ill-fated lovers, The Age of Innocence can offer its readers with a particularly piercing narrative that is written in Wharton’s carefully elaborated prose. Her elegant writing style perfectly lends itself to the ironic and serious tones of her story. The very words Wharton chooses seem to possess a contemplative quality that capture with painful clarity Archer’s feelings for the Countess.
This was an incredibly poignant novel that I will definitely be revisiting again (my heart has to recover first).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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