22 June 2014

Books: The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt (2013)

There are a lot of great things about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It is rich, with some beautiful prose and, lush in detail and filled with Dicken’s like characters and situations (the hero is Theodore Decker, who will remind both popular fiction reader and classical ones of Oliver). But it also overlong and almost falls completely apart by the end.

The Goldfinch begins with Theo in Amsterdam on Christmas Day. He is in a panic, sweaty with fever and full of narcotics, trapped here because his passport is in the hands of his long-time Russian friend Boris, who is hiding from the police after a terrible incident that left two people dead. His only solace is a brief dream visit from his beloved mother, who died 14 years ago, when he was an eighth-grader.

The story –framed with this grief- returns to that day when there was a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where then 13-year-old Theo’s mother has just explained to him the title painting’s art-historical import (Fabritius was Rembrandt’s student and Vermeer’s teacher). He also comes into contact with an older gentleman who is showing a red-headed girl around the same area. The bomb goes off, mother dies, and Theo steals the priceless painting accidentally on purpose. Before his retreat from the remains of the museum, the older gentleman gives Theo a ring and tells him where to go to return it, and then dies as well.

Placed into the rich family of schoolmate (until someone can find a living relative), Theo feels lost and conflicted, shattered with survivors guilt. The stealing of the painting was –upon reflection- a chance to keep the last minutes of his mother’s life alive. The returning of the ring also brings him in contact with an older gentle –the working partner to the man who died at the museum- named James “Hobie” Hobart. 

But just when things become less awkward at Andy’s house, Theo’s deadbeat Dad (and equally clueless girlfriend Xandra) arrives in New York and quickly bounds him up and transplants him to the outer rings of Las Vegas, in a housing development that is more a ghost town. 

There, a very unsupervised –yet smart and witty –Theo meets Boris, a Russian teen who has bounced all over the world with his violent Dad (this book abounds with bad Dads). The two become nearly inseparable and spend a lot of time hanging around, drinking, watching classic movies on cable, doing drugs and not going to school. And always, in the background, the hidden Goldfinch painting is anchoring Theo to his dead mother. He realizes the longer he has it, the more dangerous it will be to him, but he is chained to it. 

Eventually –and only half way through the book –Theo’s season in Hell of Las Vegas ends and he returns to New York (by sheer miracle and coincidences that only happens in these books) where the rest of the book goes on. Here, Theo returns to the “old curiosity shop” that Hobie toils in and runs the business. But Theo is not a saint by any means, and while saving the business, he does it in the most questionable way that leads him a reunion with Boris, the Russian Mob, his unrequited love of the red-headed girl (Pippa) and final dealings The Goldfinch painting itself.

I loved the book, and was well aware of the critical praise it was getting since its release last October. It was also on my long list of books I wanted to read, long before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in February. But despite it being smartly written, filled with lovable and despicable characters galore, despite a writer of popular fiction winning a literary award, the book does go on about a 100 pages too long. But I still highly recommend the book because it is a rarity when an author such as Tartt (this book being only the third one she’s published) receives such universal accolades and fiction’s highest honor.

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