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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Less by Andrew Sean Greer — book review


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I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to find Less to be a bit less than expected.
Although it had its moments, for the most part I found myself annoyed by its employment of satire. Not only does Greer lampoon the literary world but almost every scene ends up being satirical of someone or something.

One of the things that distanced me from the story and our main character was the narrating style. Although for the most part it is narrated in 3rd person, we soon discover that the story is actually being narrated by an omniscient narrator. Which might have worked if the narrator didn’t turn out to be (view spoiler). I would felt much more connected to Less if the story had been told directly through his pov or in a way that allowed us to glimpse his feelings and thoughts.
The story as such consists in a series of mini misadventures, where Less travels from country to country (trying to ignore his age, career, and love life) misunderstands, time and again, everybody around him.
The countries themselves blend together and combine into an irrelevant landscapes that only once succeeds in stirring some emotion in Less (and after this moment of being affect by his surroundings follows a silly joke). There are many instances were emotional depth was lost to satire. I wasn’t interested in the characters or in our protagonist’s self-discovery…in spite of its short length this novel bored me.
The novel’s self-awareness didn’t stop me from wanting to criticise it. Less is writing a book about a middle-aged white American, a Flâneur of sorts. Less himself mirrors his main character’s arc as his wanderings apparently provide him with some insight into himself and his life. Sadly I didn’t see this growth. What I read was other characters telling him to get over himself since as a he doesn’t have huge money problems, and most importantly, he is a white American man which means that he should not complain. This kind of thinking is very superficial and limited. Not only it pushes aside one’s feelings but one’s mental health (is Less not allowed to feel lonely and depressed?!).

The metafictional aspect of this novel wasn’t as innovative as the narrative would have you think… All in all, I thought that this novel did nothing new but perhaps it will resonate with other readers.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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