on January 26, 2014
I first encountered Donna Tartt in the eighth grade, when my English teacher, a Donna Tartt enthusiast, told us all about a book that she had recently published. I haven't reread The Little Friend since 2003, though I probably will go back and read it at some point this year, but when I heard about the release of Tartt's latest book, I knew it would have to go on my list. It took me a little while to get around to actually starting it, mostly because of the mixed reviews and the length (just under 800 pages), but I should not have let either stop me. Donna Tartt's novels are right up my alley - dark, a little twisted, fantastic writing, and always a compelling plot.
The novel begins with the main character of this bildungsroman, Theo, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. Two sites that Theo views that day play heavily into the directionality of the plot: the first is a young girl walking with an older gentleman and the second is a painting that he and his mother discuss. A bomb goes off causing, well, the chaos you might expect if a bomb were to go off at the Met. Theo decides to take the painting, Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch that he and his mother were viewing, giving little thought to the ramifications of pilfering a priceless work. The novel from that point follows Theo as he grows up, adjusting to a vastly changed existence after the attack and maneuvering through life with an invaluable stolen painting. The young girl, Pippa, that he had seen on the day of the attack, ebbs in and out of the plot, a love interest from the moment Theo spots her.
The characters in this novel definitely stand out. Each is vividly written, a unique persona with quirks and flaws not duplicated; each feels real. From Theo's father, an alcoholic with a gambling problem who lives in a large but basically unfurnished house in Nevada with his pill-popping, loud-mouthed girlfriend, to Boris, the Ukranian transplant, who introduces Theo to teenage life, Tartt's characters carry the story. Each has multiple layers and keeps the reader curious and engaged, wanting to know more about their thoughts and rationales. There are dozens of little side stories going on, as the world spins around Theo, and the story that the author weaves is so rich that it's as if any one of these characters could have their own novel.
Let's talk a little bit about Fabritius' painting, because it's very helpful in understanding Theo. I loved the art history tie in and the fact that the details about the artist in the novel were true. Carel Fabritius was a Dutch painter from Delft (same origin as Vermeer). He lived during the mid-1600s, was an extremely talented student of Rembrandt. He died when he was young in a gunpowder magazine explosion, which also destroyed many of his paintings. The Goldfinch is unique amidst Fabritius' oeuvre. It captures a living animal, as opposed to a portrait of a single human or a biblical scene. The bird is bathed in a very delicate light, perched upon a box and tethered to the wall indoors by a thin chain. The painting itself is physically very small, only about 13x9 inches, with rough brushstrokes only purportedly noticed when the viewer is close.
There are a number of links that can arguably be made between the main character and this painting. Firstly, the explosion that kills Fabritius himself and destroys most of his work parallels the terrorist attack that Theo experiences. One might even argue that what is left of Theo's psyche after that day is somewhat like the bird, imprisoned and chained to a bleak and undefined landscape. We could even say, perhaps, that the way other characters see Theo is like observers view The Goldfinch, from afar, he is composed and complete, but up close just a mess of emotions and experiences.
Despite the length, the plot moves quickly as Theo travels about, from New York, to Las Vegas, to Amsterdam. Two parts of this novel bothered me enough to note. Don't get me wrong, they didn't make me rethink my impression as a whole, which was in the strong-like category, but each was slightly vexing. The first was Theo's spiral into drugs and alcohol. This honestly was just not a topic I relate to, and I kept wanting to shake him and say "get it together," always figuring that moment was coming sooner than it was.
The second aspect was the ending, which was not with a bang or a nice little knot, but more of a whisper. There is a surprising lack of resolution for a story that seemed to build to so much. Maybe we can chalk all that up to the post-9/11, ego-centric, and zombified reality that Tartt has created, a neat ending just would not fit in this world. I didn't feel like this story needed the massive zoom-out that it had before concluding, the rehash of Fabritius, the reason for the penning of the tale, Theo's ponderings on what having written all this down will mean. To me, it felt a little like that section of Atlas Shrugged where you just keep waiting for the author to get back to the story and stop yammering on about this other stuff.
Putting all that aside, if you're a Donna Tartt fan, of course don't pass this up. I haven't read her other two novels in quite some time, so I can't pass judgement on how this one stacks up in comparison. If you've never read her, well, I might recommend starting at the beginning, with The Secret History and savoring over all three. This is an author who has published once every 10 years, and each novel has some heft, but the stories all move quickly. You have to like dark motifs and twisted occurrences though, so if that's not your cup of tea, you should probably run in the other direction.
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