Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book two: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Holy crap! This book lives up to the hype.

Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch has gotten so much attention I couldn't not read it.  Particularly when all my favorite "Best Books of 2013" lists came out and this book found itself at the top of most of them. Normally, all that hype means that when I finally get around to reading the book, it just can't live up to the expectation.  But The Goldfinch does, in spades.

I listened to the audio book.  And while the book is brilliant, it certainly didn't hurt to have it performed by David Pittu.  This audio book clocks in at over 32 hours.  The fact that Pittu was able to invent such riveting character voices and maintain their consistency over time is nothing short of miraculous. I never lost interest in the book even with its extreme length.  In fact, I frequently found myself looking for activities that would allow me to get back to the audiobook.

Spend any time reading reviews or stories about this book and the term "Dickensian" will come up repeatedly.  That's a claim that is bandied about way too often and is almost always undeserved. But Donna Tartt has delivered a novel that offers the epic sweep and cautionary morality that makes the novels of Dickens so tantalizing.  And rather than just make the claim, I'll offer a couple of examples.

The Characters
Like Dickens, Donna Tartt has created characters that are unforgettable.  They are so well crafted, that by halfway through the book, you can tell who is speaking just by the dialogue of the character.  They are also complex.  Almost every character in this book brings kindness and truth to the story as well as evil and deception.  There's Theodore "Theo" Decker, the 13-year old protagonist of the book who just happens to steal a priceless painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  His mother dies in the process. Over the next decade and a half, we follow Theo as he deeply disappoints with his devious actions. And yet somehow Theo always redeems himself.  There's Mrs. Barbour, a wealthy socialite who agrees to take Theo in.  Initially she seems cold and heartless despite her kind gesture.  But as you get to know her, she seems less sinister.  Boris may be my favorite character in the book.  He's helped greatly by the Russian accent given to him by David Pittu.  The kid is Trouble with a capital T.  And yet, he's a philosopher who seems hell bent on doing "the right thing."

Not every character in the book has a darker side.  I positively loved James Hobart (Hobie), the quirky old man who befriends Theo and teaches him about antiques and the art of restoration. Just as the story seems to spiral out of control, Hobie's kind and gentle confidence appears to restore a sense of calm.

The themes.
I love literature with strong, cleverly delivered themes.  It makes it easy to write an A+ term paper if you find yourself in a college literature class. But it also makes the read more rewarding.  Like most of Dickens' work, this is a moral tale.  It hits on universal themes that punch the reader right in the gut and remind us that we all might need to assess the nature of our truest intentions.  Many of the themes themselves are reminiscent of Dickens. Like Wemmick's conversations in Great Expectations, this is a story about "portable property." It's a treatise on the value of things, particularly the value of art. And it makes a strong case for our society's willingness to assign astronomical values to paintings.  But unlike Wemmick, this small, valuable object turns out to be not easily converted to currency.

Good and bad. Right and wrong. These are the central themes of The Goldfinch.  Also themes found frequently in Dickens.  Like Dickens, this book reminds us that what is legal frequently may not be what is moral.  And vice versa.  Boris may have put it best, "Because if bad can sometimes come from good actions, where does it ever say anywhere that only bad can come from bad actions. Maybe sometimes, the wrong way is the right way. You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be." I can relate to that.

The Art.
This really has nothing to do with Dickens.  But as I recently posted, for the first part of 2014 I'm focusing on books that reference or are about art. The Goldfinch is a love letter to history's great painters and craftspeople. And Tartt writes beautifully about the magic and power of art. Take this passage where through the words of Theo, Tartt gives an eloquent treatise on the true meaning and value of art: "I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between reality on the one hand and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being; where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not. And this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And I would argue as well, all love."

I recommend The Goldfinch with no hesitation.  And it easily warrants a top-notch rating of five Jeffies!

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