Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This imposing chunkster demands a significant commitment of time on the part of the reader. The story is long, taking the protagonist from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, through the world of art, antiques, drugs, and dysfunction, from the age of 13 to about 30, and still leaving the reader gasping at the end. It's a book that inspires awe at the level of detail the author presents. It arouses sympathy for some characters, and rage at others. It infuriates, cheers, exasperates, and still produces belly laughs. At the end, the reader is stunned and must sit for some time digesting all that has happened, trying to decide if the implausible scenes are at all plausible, if the plot isn't a bit too contrived, if the protagonist and all those around him aren't just too well-drawn to be believable. the end, it all works to leave me able simply to say "This is a very good book."

Without major spoilers, this is the story of 13 year old Theo Decker, victim of a terrorist bombing in a New York Museum of Art in which his divorced mother dies. Theo somehow manages to "save" the painting entitled The Goldfinch from the carnage, doesn't tell anyone he has it, and begins a journey of several years trying to decide what to do with the painting and whether (and to whom) he should return it. In the meantime, he is also the victim of a modern day sin - lack of parenting. His father (who lives in Las Vegas) doesn't want him, his grandparents don't want him, and he ends up under the temporary care of very aristocratic upper-crusty New Yorkers whose son is a classmate.

When his father finally appears to whisk him away to Las Vegas, Theo begins a terrifying fall into the pit of drugs, crime, and gambling debts, and a life-long friendship with Boris - son of a Russian immigrant who leads him down the garden path of adolescent misdeeds, misadventures and sometimes downright crime. 

As Boris and Theo mature (at least in age), so does their involvement in nefarious situations. Here is a picture of two young men, both very intelligent and cunning, with no moral compass and nothing to prevent them from becoming mired in page after page of "how did I get here and how do I get out of this?" There were times when I had to put the book down and let each adventure perk for awhile before I dared pick it up again to find out what could possible happen next. That Theo arrives alive at the end of this period of his life is as much a tribute to Tartt's writing skills as it is to the caprices of real life.

This is a major piece of fiction with more than the usual number of words. Normally, I'd be put off by its length, but Tartt uses words to paint pictures, to evoke feelings, to stimulate all our senses, so that we can place ourselves in the moment with Theo and all the powerfully portrayed  supporting cast of characters who exert some influence on his eventual arrival at adulthood. I'm not sure about the ending. But then, I'm sure that there are many who will love it.

The novel is certainly a worthy candidate for all the accolades it has garnished. It's on the short list of those being considered for the Maine Readers Choice Award, which is how I came to read it and it's going to be one of those that will be a top contender for me to advance to the finalist list.

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2013), Hardcover, 784 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: art, antiques, adolescence, parenting,
Setting: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam
Source: review copy from the publisher
Awards: New York Times Best Ten Best Books of 2013
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Fiction, 2013)
Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction Longlist (2014)
Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist (2014)
Maine Readers'Choice Award 2013 Short List


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