Posted by: markfender | April 30, 2014

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt has a new book out. And since she’s one my favorites, I read it.

goldfinchOkay, it actually came out in October. But I didn’t have time to read it then. But then it won a Pulitzer, which reminded me that I had yet to read it. So I downloaded it onto my Kindle and started reading. And reading. And reading. Turns out, it’s 900 pages long. Which you can’t really tell from the ebook version (I don’t have any reference for how many pages are left in a book from these things).

But those 900 pages are really good. The Goldfinch tells the tale of Theo Decker, a young boy living with his mother in New York City. They get caught in a terrorist bombing in which Theo’s mother dies and he absconds with the titular painting. From there, we get his numerous wards, friends, and enemies for the next ten or so years of his life as he attempts to pick up the pieces and do something with this priceless work of art he’s managed to acquire.

Theo Decker is a Donna Tartt protagonist, so that means it’s first person POV. Like Richard from The Secret History, Theo is a consummate liar, knows more about clothes than most men, is well-read and intelligent without being smart, falls madly in love with one girl to the exclusion of all others and yet still manages to have plenty of casual sex, is an alcoholic, and manages to casually do a lot of drugs.

I kept finding myself distracted by two things in the novel. For one, it’s very Dickensian. Which is interesting to see in a modern story, but it drove me to distraction as I kept wanting to “find” all of Dickens’ in the characters as they were introduced. Is Mrs. Barbour the Miss Haversheim equivalent? It didn’t help that Theo is setup in the beginning as an almost perfect Pip from Great Expectations analogue. So, I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Most of the characters don’t fit so neatly into those boxes, despite my constant effort to do so.

The second thing distracting to me was the setting. In the beginning of the book, Theo flashes back to fourteen years earlier when the terrorist attack happened. Foolishly, I assumed that the novel was taking place in the present day, which would put 14 years ago as 2000. That’s all well and good, except that everyone had cell phones and iPods, which isn’t quite accurate for 2000. I kept trying to find identifying marks in the pop culture detritus of the novel, but was never able to accurately place the year. It doesn’t help that Tartt makes up some pop culture, as well as using real stuff. So, there’s mentions of Fullmetal Alchemist alongside Radiohead, but then she’ll make up an anime or videogame, which was confusing. This made the subsequent reaction to the terrorist bombing confusing as well. From the ubiquitous nature of cell phones (with cameras) and iPods in the past, I would more accurately place the time period in the mid-aughts. Except that the entire city acts like this is the first terrorist attack it’s ever experienced, which would not be true either. So I guess the takeaway is that the novel takes place in an alternate universe modern world where 9/11 didn’t happen (Except it did because it’s specifically mentioned?? I’m so confused).

Ultimately, this novel is about art and its ability to connect across vast gulfs of time. It’s a powerful theme, written with a carefree, easy style. It has well-realized characters and manages to walk a line between pop culture and ‘real’ culture that I personally find quite effective. In other words, it deserved that Pulitzer award. It’s far better than her last book and neck-and-neck with The Secret History, my personal favorite of hers. It’s just a shame that it takes her nine years to write a book, because I’d love to read more from her. Especially if they’re going to be as great as this one was.

Read it, you plebians.

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