Thursday, December 05, 2013

What we're reading: Literary Fiction

I had no idea when I picked it up that Donna Tartt's new book, The Goldfinch, was going to be another in the series of books about art, art theft, and old masterworks towards which I have recently gravitated--I only knew that it was literary fiction, it was popular, and it was award-winning. I had admired and enjoyed her previous two books; so I made sure to put my name down on the holds list.

When you first begin the book (if you can refrain from reading the jacket copy), the art connection isn't readily apparent; you are drawn into the world of Theo Decker, a 13-year-old who lives in New York City with his rather glamorous and whimsical mother. They had both been abandoned, a few years back, by Theo's father, who was a drunk and a ne'er-do-well, a former small-time actor always banking on the next lucky break; but so solid is their relationship with each other that they don't really miss him--except perhaps for the financial hardship posed by the loss of his income.

The book opens with foreshadowing commentary from the adult Theo, who is inexplicably holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, pondering all the chances and choices that brought him to this moment (which we don't find out about until the end of the book), but the reader is quickly caught up in the narrative of 13-year-old Theo's story.

I honestly don't want to give much of a synopsis of the book, and yet it's almost impossible to review it without hitting some of the highlights. But to reveal too much and thus lessen the impact of the story as you read it is unkind, because this is, on all levels, a book of discovery. I will just say that Theo loses his mother, while making a rather mystical connection with two people and a famous painting. He spends some time in limbo as a guest of the family of a school friend, and then is uprooted by the unexpected reappearance of his father, who whisks him away to a very different existence in the tanked-out economy of the suburbs of Las Vegas. He eventually finds his way back to New York and to an enduring connection with his past, but the childhood tragedy he survived and the act he committed at 13 has defined his worldview in so many ways as to become inescapable, both philosophically and concretely.

This is a beautifully written book, with almost an excess of introspection, but it is introspection tied to action and events, and the one wouldn't be complete without the other. It is also deeply rooted in character studies, and the characterizations are so vivid as to become people you might know, want to meet, or hope to avoid.

Donna Tartt is not prolific--her first book took about eight years to produce, the second took 10, and this one was published 11 years after that--but with the depth and breadth, the sheer density of her books, that's not so surprising. In an interview with Goodreads, she has this to say about her process (which also speaks well for the continuing presence of libraries in the world):
" I did most of my research for this book in the Allen Room of the New York Public Library—although when people ask me about "research," it always strikes me as funny, because really I'm only reading about things I enjoy and would probably be reading about anyway even if I wasn't writing a book (such as Dutch art and antique furniture). Even the side things I had to learn about along the way turned out to be interesting. Though I hate team sports and have never in my life willingly watched a football game from start to finish, I taught myself about sports betting from a library book—well enough that I did all right in the football pools at my local bar last fall, and this without ever watching a game. Basically I can learn almost anything from a library book."
I must admit that there were a few points in the book at which I wanted to say, Just get ON with it already!, especially when Theo ties himself up for the umpteenth time in unhappy philosophical maunderings about what he could have done differently. But The Goldfinch is replete with both lyrical description and thriller-style action that made it worth the time invested--and at 771 pages, it IS an investment. It won't be a book for everyone, but while reading it, it struck me so forcefully that the most important and creative thing we humans attempt in life is story, whether it's long or short, simple or complex, humorous or deadly serious. The thing that delights us when reading (or when looking at art, for that matter) is that ineffable quality that makes us want to know, to feel, to believe, to experience, to understand, and also to be entertained, educated, enlightened. Donna Tartt has that gift.

As often happens when I read, the book also inspired some artistic expression on my part. The author talked so lovingly about the painting by Dutch master Carel Fabritius that it made me want to try painting a European goldfinch as well! So here is my watercolor of Carduelis carduelis, just for fun.

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