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[726] The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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” For years I’d been wallowing in a hothouse of wasteful sorrow: Pippa Pippa Pippa, exhilaration and despair, it was never-ending, incidents of virtually no significance threw me to the stars or plunged me into speechless depressions . . . Worse, my love for Pippa was muddied up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother’s death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. ” (Ch.10, ii, p.632)

The Goldfinch is a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. At 962 pages in paperback, the size could be stalling. It revolves around Theo Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. He miraculously survives an explosion in a gallery he’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch, a token of his memory, and which later becomes the object of barter of criminals and collectors. He’s taken the masterpiece because a dying old man who ended up beside him after the blast told him to save it. This man, Welty, also gave him a signet ring that leads the boy to the house of a charming furniture restorer named James Hobart, a place that becomes a safe haven as Theo tries to comes to terms with his loss.

Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture . . . He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction. (Ch.4, xii, p.207)

If Hobie is the father figure who has a better sense of the boy and treats him as a companion and conversationalist in his own right, Theo’s own father is the unreliable knucklehead who is steeped in substance abuse. Trying to cheat Theo’s education fund, his father is as much a rogue as Hobie as the anchor.

Despite his checkered fate, Theo is an admirably unlikable character. He’s flawed, selfish, and does very silly things. To save Hobie’s struggling antiques store he sells masterful reproductions as originals. He is drenched in nostalgia of the past, in this ruthless loop of searching. He epitomizes the pathetic “good person” who makes all the wrong decisions. All the ridiculous convolutions hinge on his keeping the painting which is classified as a crime. But Tartt imparts in him a strong sense of decency underneath it all and surrounds him with some lovable creations. Hobie is a fine gent; Boris is his partners in crime while in Las Vegas. They show us how one can never draw a sharp line between good and bad. Neither has a point to exist without the other.

The book probes into questions of human achievement and the human soul. But at times Tartt can be heavy-handed and indulgent in theorizing and philosophizing. The harangue of an explanation tacked on at the end is necessary, but could have been done more lightly. That all said, The Goldfinch is a rewarding journey that teaches the moral about outward appearance versus inward significance. It does offer a glimpse of hope at the end as Theo awakens to the truth that there is no such thing as perfection and pulchritude. It has the addictive quality of a Victorian novel—it reminds me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and escapades it also evokes of Wilkie Collins. It’s a book of epic scale in terms of its ambitious theme: art may addict, but art also saves one from the sadness of human beings pushing and struggling to live.

962 pp. Little Brown and Company. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Goldfinch Update

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I’ve been reading The Goldfinch for a week now, averaging about 100 pages a day. Like some of the book bloggers have commented, the page count is what ikept me away from this book shortly after I bought it in Bangkok during the recent trip. Despite the length, which can be stalling, I find The Goldfinch more accessible than The Secret History, a story told by in retrospection by Richard Pipen, a young man who, ashamed of his humble past in rural California, finds at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he has long coveted. By chance, he becomes part of a closed circle of Greek classics students whom he looks with awe, envy, and an outsider’s detachment. The Secret History proceeds with dangerous tension—the first half elucidates the “whydunit,” and the second the horrible mind-purging aftermath. It’s a compelling tale of deception and complicity, examining not so much the moral resonance as the banality of evil. In retrospect the narrator looks in dismay how his passivity and desire to ingratiate pull him into a course of destruction.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when his life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. There’s an explosion in a gallery h’’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch. At its best, The Goldfinch has that cozily addictive quality of a good old Victorian doorstopper. It at times reminded me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and dastardly doings it reminded me more of Wilkie Collins. At its worst, though, it can be torturous. For great chunks of the book Theo just mopes about his mum and ingests opiates in an unconvincing manner. It’s overall a good story and the story gets better toward the end.

The Goldfinch

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The Goldfinch is a tome. I started yesterday morning and managed about 200 pages thus far. The story, about a 13-year-old boy who survived an explosion in a New York museum that killed his mother, is a slow-churned one. Unlike the lackluster Little Friend, this one (at least for now) feels like an all-nighter (but I won’t stay up all night unless I’m on vacation). It’s an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and machinations of fate. By old-fashioned, I mean a continuous progression of a story front that hooks the reader. This modest boy has just lost his mother in a tragedy. He is left without a guardian since his father had long abandoned him and his mom. It’s very Dickens-ish but more modern in scope. There is no better thing than to immerse in a good book of which every page intrigues. It’s a change from literary fiction and mind-boggling mysteries.

[642] The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

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” Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had no the day it happened. ” (Ch.1, p.17)

The Little Friend opens with a gripping mysterious death: on Mother’s Day, 9-year-old Robin Dufresnes was found hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of a tree sitting on the overgrown hedge. Atmosphere and tone are perfectly set for a southern Gothic mystery: who or what could have possibly been able to appear in someone’s backyard, while the entire family is within earshot, two kids sitting on the back porch, and grab a little boy and hang him in a tree, and leave no trace. It also provokes that grisly lynching from the recent past.

She tried to calm herself down. Danny Ratliff had killed Robin; she knew it was true, it had to be. And yet when she tried to remind herself exactly how she knew it was true, the reasons were no longer so clear in her mind as they had been and now . . . (Ch.9, p.611)

Death has tainted the family. By the time Harriet reaches puberty, her mother has retreated into a melancholic stupor and her father, a country-club vulgarian, has decamped to Nashville. Harriet and her sister Allison become portégés of their three aunts, one of whom is Libby, a spinster. Seized with a child’s superstitious sense of purpose, Harriet, now 12, takes investigation in her own hands. She begins poking around and soon finds herself mixed up with the Ratliff brothers—a preacher, a meth dealer, a felon, and one of whom, Danny, she makes her suspect.

The book is set in the 1970s, in Mississippi, which, as Tartt brilliantly illustrates, is plagued by the persistence of racial injustice and spooky implication, like dead cats, dying blackbirds, and poisonous snakes. But these literary elements bear no relevance to the story line—depending on what reader wants the story to be.

Harriet, ushered by her curiosity, enters a world of the ugly, the furious, and the reckless. Her investigation, to some readers’ dismay, is inconclusive. The prose is beautiful, full of a fever-dream realism. But the story waxes poetically into a never-ending stream of consciousness. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance of the truth. It’s a portrait of a stagnant family. The ending is frankly frustrating (especially after slogging 600 pages), for most of its length, it lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written.

624 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[554] The Secret History – Donna Tartt

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” His students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat. I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated. ” (Book I, Ch.1, p.30)

There is a hypnotic erudition to The Secret History, a story told by in retrospection by Richard Pipen, a young man who, ashamed of his humble past in rural California, finds at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he has long coveted. By chance, he becomes part of a closed circle of Greek classics students whom he looks with awe, envy, and an outsider’s detachment. They are under the tutelage of Julian Morrow, a charismatic scholar who guides them through the study of ancient Green culture and its philosophy on beauty. He has a favorite saying that “beauty is terror,” and that one has to “leave the phenomenal world and enter into the subliminal.” To translate this into action, the group, behind Julian’s back, carries out a Dionysian rite at a farm in which a farmer is gorily killed.

And it wasn’t just a question of having kept my mouth shut. I thought, staring with a sick feeling at my blurred reflection in the windowpane. Because they couldn’t have done it without me. Bunny had come to me, and I had delivered him right into Henry’s hands. And I hadn’t even thought twice about it. (Book II, Ch.8, p.458)

Henry, leader of the pack, is cold and calculated. His erudition in Greek studies earns his respect from the other students. He has orchestrates the Bacchae and seamlessly covers the trace of the crime with plausible alibi. Furious that he has been excluded from the plan, Bunny, the oddball of the group who always imposes himself in others’ goodwill, throws tantrum and sublimates his anger toward Henry into his dealings with the rest of the world. His random eruption of hysteria compound his already volatile personality—the primary reason for his exclusion fro the rite in the first place. Fed up with his malicious jokes and insinuations, and fear that he will betray the secret, the group believe in the necessity of murdering Bunny.

The danger which he presented was, after all, not immediate but slow and simmering . . . Benny, unawares, had himself supplied us with such an impetus. I would like to say I was driven to what I did by some overwhelming, tragic motive. (Book I, Ch.5, p.214)

And so The Secret History proceeds with dangerous tension—the first half elucidates the “whydunit,” and the second the horrible mind-purging aftermath. It’s a compelling tale of deception and complicity, examining not so much the moral resonance as the banality of evil. In retrospect the narrator looks in dismay how his passivity and desire to ingratiate pull him into a course of destruction. In the face of these faultlessly orchestrated schemes he becomes willfully blind. Tartt’s prose is supple, decorous, and poetic. Despite the outrageous acts depicted, and the implication that Henry might be Dionysus or the Devil himself, her prose conveys a familiar life of students. As these students inch toward a terrible conclusion, they don’t so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. They are chilling creatures. Therefore, real guilt and suffering do not truly take place within the novel’s realm; neither does redemption.

524 pp. Knopf. Hard Cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Cult Classic

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Finishing An American Tragedy is an accomplishment. Now moving on to another book of daunting size that has been sitting on the shelf, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I must have acquired it during college but never got to it. The book has been become an international bestseller and cult classic twenty years after it was first published in 1992. The novel’s narrator is Richard Papen: 19, gawky, insecure and anxious to fit in. He’s an Everyman, or at least an Everyteenager. Arriving at Hampden, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, from his hometown in California, Richard is overwhelmed by his new surroundings. Richard’s fellow Greek students hold themselves apart from the rest of Hampden, openly disdaining its partying, chattering hordes. Together they form a very tight and closed group, almost cultish, under the tutelage of Professor Julian Morrow, who directs their studies in ancient Greek culture and its beauty. Added to my pleasure and interest is the fact that it’s been clear from the first page that they were doomed. The novel’s prologue opens with a dead body at the bottom of a ravine and the narrator’s confession of murder. It’s a literary whydunit. I cannot wait for the pages to unfold, for there is a continuous sense of psychological tension.