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Monday, July 14, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Goldfinch

On June 29th at ALA Annual, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt won the 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction this is in addition to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction it had already won.

I listened to this novel way back in the early days of 2014, and have been putting off a review since so many others have written so much about it. Also, I am still figuring out who to suggest this book to and in which format-- beyond the obvious patrons who love to read the best reviewed books of the year and/or major award winners. But those readers are easy to appease with lists of nominees and winners. So, in this review I am going to work through how you suggest this book and to whom.

The first thing I have to say about this book is that you should NOT read it for the plot.  Here is that official plot summary:
It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
First off, this summary does not tell you one of the most important aspects of this novel-- how the story is told.  Theo is telling this story as an adult who has made it through a very difficult childhood.  The entire novel is Theo talking directly to you, the reader, and recounting it all with the benefit of hindsight.  This means that there are MANY moments [some of them lightening fast] of foreshadowing. If you pay close attention, Tartt’s pay off is worth it.  You remember a small aside and then 200 pages later, you get your “ah-ha” moment. The novel opens with Theo in a hotel room in Amsterdam, obviously hiding from law enforcement and in some kind of distress, but it takes 600+ pages for the reader to get to Theo’s present and know why he is there and what is happening.

Which brings me to my second point.  This is a 771 page book.  Although parts of it move at the “stay-up-all-night” pace that is referred to by the publisher above, other long sections are deliberately slowed down.  For example, the summary does not mention Theo’s high school years in Las Vegas living with his father and where he meets a key friend who proves vital to the novel’s crazy, thriller-esque conclusion. This vast middle of the novel is frustratingly slow, even monotonous at times. You want Theo to get out of this bad situation and figure out what matters.  But, brilliantly, that is Tartt’s point here.  This is a bad time for Theo too. His life is monotonous and going down a terrible path, but it is all necessary to get Theo to where Tartt is moving him.  The development of foreclosed upon homes in the middle of the desert, the absent, to the point of criminal neglect, parents, the loss of moral center, and the overall melancholy of Theo’s life needs to creep by at an unbearably slow pace for the reader to even experience a portion of Theo’s internal pain and struggles.  Because if we can't grasp the depth of his sorrow and turmoil, the rest of the book doesn’t make any sense.

Now, having explained that, you can better understand why this novel may not be for every reader. However, I do think that the audio greatly improves enjoyment here. loved listening to this book.  I would have HATED reading it though; in fact, I am pretty sure I would have given up.  This dichotomy needs to be explored.

The Goldfinch fits neatly into the category of the type of audiobook I most enjoy [click here for that info], but it is not just me who enjoyed the narration.  David Pittunarration won two Audies.  One for Best Solo Narration-Male and one for Best Literary Fiction. Pittu made this slower, intricately plotted novel compelling and engaging.  Pittu became Theo.  I was always longing to return to Theo and hear his story because of Pittu’s brilliance in bringing Theo to life.

Other appeal factors to note: this is a true character driven novel and Theo is not always a likable character.  He is sympathetic, but makes bad choices all of the time.  In the end, he has learned his lesson and is taking responsibility for some of his actions. But if you do note care for Theo’s plight you will not like this book.

The tone was a favorite of mine-- haunting and melancholy with an oppressive atmosphere that never lets up.  But again, we are talking 800 pages of this.  Some readers will be overwhelmed by the oppressiveness for that long.  While the ending is positive, it is not joyous or celebratory.  So you get this heavy atmosphere, for a marathon amount of time, and in the end all you really feel is a sigh of relief. Now me, I loved it, but I know I am not the norm here.

As you can also tell from the plot summary and my additions, this is a richly detailed and intricately plotted novel.  It has a detailed frame set around art, art crimes, and the antiques world.  Many people who enjoy these frames will be drawn to The Goldfinch. In fact, I found this frame fascinating. The picture itself, the one titled The Goldfinch, is the link that connects everything that happens in the novel.  If you are not interested in the painting, its meaning to the characters, and its fate, you will not like this book.

Overall The Goldfinch is impressive.  It is intricately plotted, lyrical at times, extremely thought provoking, and technically masterful.  It probably deserves all of its awards; however, and despite the fact that I enjoyed reading it personally, I do not think it will stand up over time as a classic work of American literature.

My advice is to suggest it to audiobook fans who want a literary fiction story that they can spend time with.  If someone is looking to read the book, warn them that it will be heavy and take time.  Maybe show them this review so they can decide for themselves.

Three Words That Describe This Book: atmospheric, coming of age, psychological

Readalikes: Click here for the readalikes that RUSA provided for all of the Carnegie Medal finalists.
Of these I have read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and I completely agree. The two novels share quite a bit.  Click here for mentions of ELaIC on this blog including many readalikes.

NoveList also had a great suggestion of Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka which I read and reviewed here.  Said Kim Burton, "Although The Goldfinch is more leisurely and literary than Tell the Wolves, both are atmospheric, lyrical coming-of-age novels that follow the experiences of a grieving teen who receives an unexpected gift from among their lost loved one's belongings.” I especially second this suggestion if you liked the idea of The Goldfinch but felt it needed some editing for a swifter pace.

For people who like novels about missing works of art, crime, and the art world would also enjoy The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Authors who are very similar to Tartt (and ironically also take forever to write books, but when they finish them, they are always worth your time, if not the best book you read that year) are Marisha Pessl and Nicole Krauss.  Links go to the times I have written reviews or mentioned these authors. But for specific matches to The Goldfinch, I would suggest Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The History of Love.  Both are literary coming-of-age stories with misfit main characters who have to find their way through loss without traditional adult assistance.

Finally, for a totally outside of the box recommendation, if you enjoyed The Goldfinch for its atmospheric, haunting and melancholy tone, but wanted this experience in a more condensed and lyrical package, I highly suggest The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell.  Click through and read my review for details.  There are zombies in this suggestion, but it is NOT a horror book.  Trust me. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful coming-of-age stories I have ever read.


Sonia Reppe said...

Everything I've read about this (just now in your blog and elsewhere) has made me think I won't like this--until you said a read-alike was Tell The Wolves I'm HOme, which is one of my favorite books. Maybe I will give Goldfinch a try.

Jenny O said...

So glad to read this - Tartt's earlier The Secret History is one of my favorite books of all time, but I had SUCH trouble getting even partway through The Goldfinch. It's really helpful to reframe that slogging middle section as a parallel to Theo's own experience at that time, and I'm definitely going to give it another try. Will also be moving some of your readalike suggestions - particularly The Angels Are The Reapers and Tell The Wolves I'm Home - further up my to-read list.

Becky said...

I am so glad to help.