The summer of 2013, I was also staying with my father. That is the summer that India swooped into my hands and I read her. Grieving for my mother, I went deep into a couple of epic narratives, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I immersed myself, much as I am this summer, in a lot of Al Purdy poetry and George Bowering poetry, as a way of dealing with loss and feelings that not only bubbled onto the surface, but became like open boils on my heart. To go back further, to the summer of 2011, I became captivated by Belleville and picked up everything I could that was written by Gerry Boyce, local historian (who happens to now live in my father’s building), and began stalking Susanna Moodie; visiting her house on Bridge Street west, visiting her resting place, even locating original marble at Campbell’s monuments and of course, read her writing and what others wrote about her and her sister, Catherine Parr Trail. Summers with my father have proved to be interesting literary events, every time.
This summer, I brought along The Goldfinch by Donna Tarttt, a novel that every one was talking about, but one that I had not taken the time to read. In retrospect, I regret that I did not previously read The Secret History. In most reviews I find that there are comparisons being drawn between the two books and typically, The Secret History surpasses the other for its construction, originality and popularity. It’s now on my ‘to do’ list.
So…my thoughts on a book that is likened, in part, to Rowling’s Harry Potter, Dickens and Breaking Bad? I guess I can only review this one through my own eyes and that’s why literary reviews can be very interesting…they are so personal. Dr. Joan Macleod’s words come to mind. “You notice what you know.” Anything you do, see or understand is coming from a prior knowledge and experience, without any intention to do so. While I may perceive some Goodreads reviews to be desperately arrogant where this novel is concerned, I can’t fault those authors because they may have been looking for something very different where a ‘good book’ is concerned.
I have no choice but to break this one down…
First and foremost, for me, is that ‘THE GOLDFINCH’ (the 1654 painting done by Carel Pietersz. Fabritius ) was the element (yes, it became a character for me) that I would not lose sight of throughout the novel. I fell in love with the painting at the first moment that Theo saw it through his mother’s eyes. Once described by the author, I was captivated. I would be concerned from that point forward until the end, about what was to happen to the painting, but also, what the painting had to say to me, the reader.
Now, not every one would be captivated by the painting and its symbolism. I would propose that readers who have adored a piece of art in a dusty art textbook or on an art card or reproduction for years and then see it for the first time ‘in the flesh’, know what I’m talking about, here. Edgar Degas’s sculpture, The Little Dancer, is that for me. I saw the sculpture in so many forms, but until I saw it in three dimensions in the center of a room at the National Art Gallery, the first exhibit to be showcased in the new building the summer of 1988, I did not realize just how much a person can be left breathless by art.
I remembered weeping when I saw her. (but enough of that)
The point being that, while others are annoyed by the last fifteen pages of the novel, I was engrossed in them. An examination of the subject of the painting and its treatment was crucial to me. While many readers found the high keyed description annoying, excessive and boring, I lavished in it, likely because I’m that sort of writer. (this makes me laugh) To be honest, though, there were sections in Las Vegas where I tuned out…also, places where I found myself skimming. Did that happen for you?
Some critics describe the portion of the book set in Las Vegas to be the strongest portion, but this was the section I had the most difficulty with. Not to draw comparisons, but it was the drug culture and experience in Shantaram that I found the least interesting. I find that ‘druggies’ quickly become treated as stereotypical mono-faceted characters. There isn’t anything that surprises me in the writing of their habits, their related bad choices or the consequences of those. I really didn’t care ‘how many’ pills Boris or Theo were taking…or how much vodka they were drinking. So, can you tell? This section rubbed me the wrong way. (Note that I’m trying not to ruin the story for others here, by being rather vague.) I guess we needed Vegas because we needed to know Theo’s father. Boris just rubbed me the wrong way…throughout. I wasn’t all that taken by his character, the way he was written or the seamless way that he managed to undo his past mistake. Oh my! That was all too easy and a disappointment. (no spoiler alert required…see!) READ THE BOOK.
What I loved…apart from the Goldfinch…the painting…the symbolism there…Welty’s love for the painting, Theo’s mother…
I relished everything and anything to do with the old house, the writing of Hobie and his life in the downstairs wood shop. Pour on the detail! Would this engage every reader? No. But, moi??? YES! Antiques, wood, bric-a-brac, trades, recuperation, recreation and the interesting characters who came and went in Hobie’s life. This was the ‘stuff’ of life and I think that Theo had stability in this setting. It was a relief whenever and however he landed there. Pippa was a beautiful maiden…a disappointment that the relationship didn’t feel resolved, but interesting none-the-less.
Andy and the Barbour family…another layer of story, a setting, somehow separate from the number of others. The Barbour family becomes a microcosm, each character struggling in a unique way. One can get wrapped up in their world, as well. Written as a separate, but somehow connected, passage to the larger narrative, the ‘endings’ for each of these characters become concerning and the reader is left asking, “How does any of this impact Theo, after all?”
My readers, here, may have already wondered about the multiple settings and the long litany of characters…well, I suppose that this is where Tartt receives most of her criticism. In the end, however, I view the book, in culmination, as a fanciful narrative about everything that is ‘us’…the traumas, the celebration, the consequences and the histories within one life.
I am staying in an apartment building that overlooks a very Victorian landscape, well manicured lawns and beautifully constructed, if not ornamental, homes. I’ve met so many individuals who live here and each one comes with their own complex story. This book is like that, oodles of tales within a single character’s life time. They enter and they depart and at the end of it, we are left with the tale of a single image, an object of affection and the fact that it was something that remained, however ephemeral.
A Goldfinch bound by a small tether…for a lifetime…to its own life.
I recommend the book and will be looking for The Secret History.
I liked this review/analysis. You might also.
My Shantaram Review