Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Review and F2F Report


This will be my first review since I returned to the blog, so I'll just tell you a few things I plan to change to my reviewing format, up front.  Things are going to be more casual.  I'm all about the time crunch, at the moment, so if my copy of a review book isn't handy I'm not going to bother running to fetch it to prop it up for details.  If it was received from a publisher, "ARC" will appear in the labels (even if it's a finished copy) to distinguish it from books in my personal library or public library books.  I do think it's important to mention that my Face to Face (F2F) book group received copies of The Goldfinch from Little, Brown and Co., which was much appreciated.  We had a lively discussion.  This review/F2F report is a bit longer than you should probably expect in the future because the cats woke me up at 4:30 AM.  

Onward.  An excerpt:

We looked at each other and just laughed; everything was hysterically funny, even the playground slide was smiling at us, and at some point, deep in the night, when we were swinging on the jungle gym and showers of sparks were flying out of our mouths, I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.  For hours, we watched the clouds rearranging themselves into intelligent patterns; rolled in the dirt, believing it was seaweed (!); lay on our backs and sang 'Dear Prudence' to the welcoming and appreciative stars.  It was a fantastic night--one of the great nights of my life, actually, despite what happened later. 
~p. 333 of Advanced Reader Copy (some changes may have been made to the finished print version)

The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt's third book and the first that I've managed to read (also true of the members of my F2F group, who agree they would like to read more by Tartt), although I do have a copy of her first book, The Secret History, and I knew she was from Mississippi.  At close to 800 pages (densely packed, at that), The Goldfinch is a book rich with detail.  Is that a good thing?  Well, let's see what my F2F group had to say.  We'll just go with the interview method. I will be interviewed by the bird on the cover.  

Goldfinch:  Tweet.

Bookfool:  Hello.

GF:  Tell us about the story, please.

BF:  The Goldfinch is the story of Theodore Decker.  When Theo is young (about age 12, as I recall), he and his mother are victims of a (fictional) explosion in New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  After he regains consciousness, Theo finds The Goldfinch lying nearby and sits with a dying man. Then, he takes the painting with him and keeps it for many years, considering himself its caretaker while realizing he should return the painting.  As Theo grows, he becomes friends with the business partner of the man whose death he attended and moves from place to place.  He keeps the painting, knowing it's considered stolen. What will become of Theo, who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress, and the priceless painting?

GF:  Did you and your group members know I am a real painting, going into the reading of this book?


BF:  Most of us did.  For those of you who are unaware, The Goldfinch was painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654.  Fabritius himself was the victim of an explosion but the painting has never been stolen.  Although our Dutch F2F member (who is moving away, gosh darn it) has seen some of his paintings, I'm pretty sure she said she had not seen The Goldfinch.  

GF:  What did your group members think of The Goldfinch? [The book title is highlighted in bold, painting name in italics).

BF:  I asked if everyone liked The Goldfinch, loved it or just appreciated the writing (which is stunning in both beauty and detail) in spite of not loving the story.  Absolutely everyone liked or loved the book.  I liked it but I fall closer to the latter category of appreciating the writing more than the story itself, because I personally found it very difficult to read about Theo's drug addiction. The excerpt, above, is from a scene in which Theo and his friend Boris are experimenting with drugs, hence the sparks flying out of their mouths.  Although that scene jumped out at me as one of particular revelation and levity, in general, the portion of the book that takes place in Las Vegas was absolutely miserable to me.  I didn't like reading about the details of his experience and even tweeted about how happy I was to be leaving Las Vegas, when I got to that point.  



However, our group leader found the opening scenes during which Theo lost his mother, realized that he had no place to go and Social Services was going to stick him in foster care the most painful to read.  Nobody else mentioned feeling pained by any of Theo's experiences, although one particular death was a bit more miserable to everyone than the rest (sadly, that is a spoiler).

GF: What other things did you discuss with your group?

BF:  We discussed the length of The Goldfinch and whether or not it needed to be as long as it was, the characters, the theme, the ending, the writing, the relationships between characters, why Theo continued to hold onto the painting instead of turning it over to authorities, the author and her ties to Mississippi.  Our fearless leader had sent us a link to Stephen King's review of The Goldfinch in The New York Times  and we talked about his thoughts and laughed about the comment that it would not be wise to drop The Goldfinch on one's foot.  King's closing thoughts:

There are a few missteps, yes.  It's hard to believe that television coverage of a terrorist attack like the one Tartt imagines would be interrupted with mattress commercials, and there's a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed.  But for the most part, "The Goldfinch" is a triumph with a brave theme running through it:  art may addict, but art also saves us from "the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live."  Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.
That said, don't drop it on your foot.

GF:  What did your group think of the characters?  

BF:  One member commented that there were a lot of bad characters (drunk, drug-addicted, cruel, etc.) but we all loved Hobie, the furniture restorer whose kindness Theo leans on and from whom he learns the importance of the type of beauty that outlives us.  Andy, an old friend whose family Theo stays with, was also a favorite.  And, everyone wished they could have known Theo's mother better.  During the times he and others reflect upon her life, she is always described with affection.  Pippa, the redheaded girl Theo falls in love with at first sight in MoMA we found a little perplexing; we discussed spoilery bits in regard to her.  Mrs. Barbour (Andy's mother, who took Theo in without question, when he was on the verge of going into foster care) seemed cold, at first, but later in the book  you see her softer side.  Kitsey turned out to be a disappointment but at least she was herself.  

We also talked about the names of the Barbour children: Kitsey, Platt, Andy and Toddy.  I wondered if naming a character Toddy was her polite wave to Ole Miss ("Hotty Toddy" being a cheer/greeting used by Ole Miss students), where Tartt spent a year of her schooling.  

GF:  What about the theme?  Did you agree with Stephen King?

BF:  I can't say I got a good fix on what other group members thought, although I do think there's some truth in his observation.  When I closed the book, I was a little baffled about what it was about.  What was the author trying to say to the reader?  I came up with this as a theme:  "Life sucks and then you die.  But, if you're lucky, maybe some good will come of all the bad things that happen to you."  When I mentioned my thoughts, there were quite a few nods, although I don't think that means anyone found the two ideas (mine and King's) mutually exclusive. 

GF:  What about the length?  Did anyone skim?  Did they think it needed to be nearly 800 pages long or could it have used some editing?

BF:  This part of the discussion was pretty interesting.  Someone asked if anyone skimmed the book and I think it was pretty unanimous that it's not the kind of book that one skims.  For one thing, it is simply too engrossing.  Our leader said she doesn't usually find it a problem to skim over lengthy description and yet, as descriptive as the book was, she felt like every word was important.  Another member said she thought 2-300 pages could have been edited out, although she was glued to the the book's every word, as well, because there were so many surprises and twists that she thought it was critical to read even the details that could have been trimmed. You never knew when something important was going to happen.  

We didn't all agree about where the trimming necessarily should have taken place, had the book been edited down in size.  I didn't mind the lengthy passages about furniture restoration, useless as they may be to me (our aesthetic leans modern; I'll never own antique furnishings) because those were the times when life was most peaceful for Theo. The detailed drug-abuse scenes drove me nuts.  One member said, "But, that's reality - that's just something people go through," the implication being that experimentation with alcohol and drugs is a normal stage of life.  It's a stage I skipped without regret, but I can see her point.  I think the furniture restoration detail is the bit most commonly considered superfluous.  Point to Stephen King.

GF:  Thoughts about the ending?

BF:  I was personally both disappointed in the ending and relieved because I flipped ahead to read the ending and misinterpreted it.  Reading it in context put it the final words into perspective.  But, I still got a negative vibe from the ending.  Our leader read the ending aloud (two paragraphs, I think) and she said she loved the ending.  That third reading made me see it in a different light.  I thought, in many ways, the book was relentlessly sad, with only occasional reprieves, and the ending was . . . a bit dire in its nihilism, I suppose.  Fearless Leader thought it was beautiful and I admit to understanding her viewpoint when she read it.  Regardless, we all thought the book was an excellent read and felt privileged to have the opportunity to read it in advance of publication.  

GF:  What's the release date?

BF:  The Goldfinch is scheduled for release on October 22, 2013.  Just a few days, now!   

GF:  Recommended?  Not recommended?  

BF:  Definitely recommended by everyone in our group - all of whom found it a stunning read.  And, we also thought it was a terrific discussion book.  Although I came prepared with some generic questions, the discussion was organic.  I did have to ask if we could return to the book, after our chatter somehow managed to veer off to politics in Mississippi (probably because we talked about how Barry Hannah discovered Donna Tartt and Willie Morris facilitated her move out of state to finish her education), but by then we'd pretty much hit all the topics on my question list and all I did was ask if everyone liked, loved or merely tolerated the book and after everyone said they liked or loved it, the meeting broke up.  

GF:  Thank you for letting me interview you.  I'd fly away, now, but I have this ridiculous chain attached to my leg.

BF:  Thank you for interviewing me, little goldfinch. And, thank you to Miriam of Little, Brown for providing the copies for group discussion.  

©2013 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

23 comments:

  1. You've got me quite curious about this book. I think I'll put it on my wishlist, and should I come upon a copy, I shall be very attentive in my efforts not to let it fall on my foot. ;-) Thanks for the excellent review!

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    1. Definitely add it to your wishlist, Megan. It is superlative. And, when you're done, it will always be useful as a doorstop.

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  2. I love your interviews. I don't think this book will be in my near future. Maybe on audio... I just can't fathom a long book at the moment and me so very glad that If On A Winter's Night is less than 300 pages.

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    1. Thank you, m'dear. No, I don't think this book is one you need to bother with while you're buried in schoolwork, although maybe listening to the audio when you're buzzing around the house would work. You'll definitely want to read it eventually, though.

      I just sniffed around and found my copy of If On a Winter's Night! Wahoo! I was worried when it wasn't where I expected it to be. I have 3 other titles by Calvino and 260 pages is really quite long for one of his books. But, I haven't managed to get through any, yet. Should be interesting!

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  3. I love this! Such a great format for discussing the book. Admittedly, The Goldfinch is now my favorite book of the year - I was completely awed by it. I was jealous of everyone else reading it after me, wanting to pick it up and find out what was happening to Theo again. Love hearing about the different opinions in your group!

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    1. Thanks, Shannon! I'm glad you like the way I did the review! Using a Q/A format really helps me organize my thoughts.

      I haven't met anyone who disliked The Goldfinch, yet. Glad you loved it so much! It's definitely an unusually stunning piece of writing. While not my personal favorite because it's dark, I adored Theo and rooted for him --- and I can't fathom parting with my copy. It's too special; I can visualize myself revisiting it, a few years down the road.

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  4. The length also intimidates me. The only books I usually read that long are the classics. I am reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins right now. Earlier this year I listened to the Woman in White and enjoyed it. For some reason I gravitate toward British books 1800s. Lol do you think I would like the Goldfinch? I like this review format too. Is different than any I have seen around the blogosphere.

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    1. It's hard to say whether you would like it Brittanie, but I'm leaning toward no, just because it has some lengthy passages with drug use and a lot of swearing. The writing is superb, though, and it's a good story. I'm a slow reader so it took my about 5-6 days to read (I typically read at bedtime and only get about 100 pages read, max) but one of the great things about it is that it really does swallow you whole. Reading The Goldfinch is an experience. You have to be willing to spend some time on it, though, for sure!

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    2. Oh, and I forgot to say . . . you probably haven't seen the review format much because I came up with it, a few years back, in a moment of desperation. I can't remember when I started doing what I call the "self-interview" (usually, I create a character to interview me, but once it was just "me, myself and I"). It was a long time ago and it was something I did to try to help organize my thoughts when I was having a particularly rough time reviewing. It's quite fun and makes it a lot easier describing a book that's hard to write about or requires a broader perspective and it's super for writing about discussion, as well.

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  5. Really enjoyed the book review! I do want to read this one but didn't realize it was that long. I'm just not into long books lately. Anyway, we'll see maybe I'll get all motivated towards the end of the year when I have some time off from work!

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    1. Thanks! I can understand why you'd want to hold off, Iliana. Sounds like a solid plan, saving it till you have time off.

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  6. Wow, I didn't realize it was that long a novel. I'll wait for it to come out in softcover, just so I can lift it :-) It sounds interesting, but not as much as The Interestings, which I am really anxious to get to (still 60 odd people ahead of me in the library list). I like your interview format too, Bookfool. The Goldfinch is hilarious!

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    1. Yep, she's a chunkster. It's a little hard to hold because of the weight. One of the ladies in my group said she thought the hardback might be easier to hold when she had fewer pages on one side or the other -- she found herself curling the lesser side up, behind the book, to make it easier to hang onto. I did that, too, and I'm kind of OCD about the condition of my books. It's quite heavy.

      The Interestings is on my wish list. Haven't looked at the library. I'm still just starting to get to know my new library system.

      Thanks! Goldfinches are crazy, in real life. I've got photos of a goldfinch fights.

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  7. Good interview/review format. Generally it sounds like most readers are really liking this book despite the hefty length. I intend to get to it down the line. I liked her Secret History a lot. cheers

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    1. Thank you! Yes, The Goldfinch is definitely getting a lot of kudos. It will be interesting to see what happens to the ratings over time. I'm sure there will be people who can't get through it or who dislike it but my F2F group was extremely enthusiastic about it. I haven't read The Secret History, yet. Must locate my copy. I'll bet you'll love The Goldfinch if you liked her first book.

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  8. Was delighted the book was so long...if you're enjoying it, why wouldn't you want it to continue. Loved every minute of it UNTIL the past 40 pages or so when he gets back from Amsterdam. Ugh, what was all that preaching and preaching and preaching? I started skimming, it was really too bad. It was like after all that superb plot, brilliant character development and just rip-roaring entertainment, she felt she could stop cold and start lecturing the reader. When she began addressing the reader directly, it was over.

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    1. Oh, well, I'm one of those people who prefer that a book does not drag on forever. I like economy in storytelling. But, I loved The Goldfinch and found it so engrossing that it took surprisingly less time to read than expected.

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  9. This was a stunning review! wow! I am on edge to read this book but prepare myself to read that many pages. It will be my first Donna Tartt book also. I'm an Ole Miss alum so I am all for characters named "Toddy!" LOL!

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    1. Thank you, Vernadette! I think you'll find that the book is a quicker read than you might expect, given its size. You're an Ole Miss alum? Awesome!

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  10. Anonymous6:38 PM

    Loved the book. Read it on kindle so didnt know length. I was surprised/frustrated when I didnt finish it in one or two sitting likr im used to.

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  11. Thanks for this review. I just finished the book last night for a bookclub meeting tonight but I think I may be the only one completely done so will be hard to discuss. I too was so happy to leave Las Vegas although my distress in that section didn't turn me off the book all together which it could have. Like your fearless leader I found the last few paragraphs incredibly moving - even bringing tears to my eyes - but I am also struggling to find the theme of the book. The book felt so modern-day Dickens to me (especially Great Expectations) and so I assumed the style was purposeful - the long digressions on drugs, furniture, etc. The only thing missing was the sly humour - like you I found the book extremely sad and although I felt a little lift of hope at the end it was very slight. Thanks for sharing your insight - look forward to reading more of your blog.

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  12. Simply put the Goldfinch is all about Art and Death. I thought it was a fantastic read and I wrote about it briefly here - http://guiltyfeat.com/2014/02/18/good-soldier-good-soldier/

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  13. It is a great book indeed and I can't wait to read more books by Donna Tartt.

    Here's my summary/ Review of the book: http://accordingtohind.com/sunday-book-goldfinch-donna-tartt/

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