Friday, 22 November 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

published 2013








Not knowing what to do, I started walking down St Mark’s toward Tompkins Square. All Day All Night. You Must be Twenty One To Enter. Downtown, away from the high-rise press, the wind cut more bitterly and yet the sky was more open too, it was easier to breathe. Muscle guys walking paired pit bulls, inked-up Bettie Page girls in wiggle dresses, stumble-bums with drag-hemmed pants and Jack O’Lantern teeth and taped-up shoes. Outside the shops, racks of sunglasses and skull bracelets and multi-colored transvestite wigs. There was a needle exchange somewhere, maybe more than one but I wasn’t sure where; Wall Street guys bought off the street all the time if you believed what people said but I wasn’t wise enough to know where to go or who to approach, and besides who was going to sell to me, a stranger with horn rimmed glasses and an uptown haircut…?



observations: I deliberately read very little about The Goldfinch before starting it, and that turned out to be a really good idea, and one I strongly recommend to anyone else.

[So if you’re contemplating it, stop reading this NOW, bookmark it, and come back when you’ve finished. There aren’t any spoilers, but it’s best to come to the book blank.] 

I had gathered the initial premise: young Theo is in a NY museum when it is attacked by terrorists, and loses his mother, but walks out with a valuable picture, The Goldfinch of the title (which is a real picture, by Fabritius, in The Hague). I had no idea what was going to happen to him after that, and so the book was full of tension and surprises – I didn’t know what kind of story it was going to be, and that was all to the good.

And it was fabulous, a huge adventure story with a serious core, amazingly funny, very perceptive and observational, and full of fascinating details about art (‘boring picture of fat-faced man you don’t know’) and art theft - and also antique furniture*, Las Vegas, drugs, drug addiction, NY upper classes, how to smuggle a dog onto a Greyhound bus, and on and on. It is a breath-taking book: her ability to inhabit different worlds is extraordinary – how does she know? How does she do the dialogue so well? Does she know the kind of low-lifes who pop up here and there? 

*There is a recipe for furniture polish, which might have fitted nicely into the blog piece on recipes in books. 

There are a few scenes and sections that go on too long (presumably no-one will edit her) and the loss of the passport seemed a clunky plot device. But these are tiny criticisms over the length of a book that gives you a whole world, and otherwise has an almost-perfect structure.

The description of his walk above reminded me instantly of the pictures of James Jowers: his marvellous photos of New York life are available from George Eastman House via Flickr and I have used them on the blog before (for example here and here). The one above is called St Mark’s Place.

The book would also have suited this picture:


-- a photo I have had in mind for ages, and finally found a great fit for in last months Impossible Object.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting, dare I say it tempting, but oh for the embargo..is it over-long?

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    1. I don't know. Better 700 pages of great prose than 150 of rubbish... I did think a couple of sections went on a bit, but overall a wonderful achievement. It took me a while to get through it...

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  2. Moira - Sorry if this is repetitive, but I wasn't sure my first attempt at a comment got through. At any rate, I've decided to take your advice and only skimmed the part of your post that followed your 'spoiler (well, not really)' warning. It does sound like a compelling read just from the snipped you posted. I like the writing style.

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    1. Don't think the first one did get through Margot - thanks for trying again! Yes, do - I think more than most books this one really benefits from the reader not knowing where it is going. Not in the crime fictions sense of spoiler, but because it makes it a genuine adventure. It is very well-written....

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  3. The second photo has someone who does not look ready for real winter. I brought my heavy duty parka to Regina for the Canadian football Championship this weekend. This morning it was -25 before the wind chill.

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    1. I love your comment Bill! I'm afraid young women have a tendency to dress for the look rather than the weather (I plead guilty, for my past when I was young...) though they're probably more sensible in Canada.

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  4. I skipped most of the post since I haven't read the book and I do like to start a book with a blank slate if possible... The excerpt did not entice me, however. I have not read anything by Donna Tartt, but have had The Secret History, which I keep putting off due to the length.

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    1. I liked the Secret History very much... and read it quite quickly once I got going, though that's a long time ago. You should probably start with that one, if you are going to try her at all....

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    2. Good to know, and that is what I will do. I hope to get over my problem with long books in 2014. After all, I am going to read The Little Shadows in the first few months of the year.

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  5. A book I could not put down and when I got to the end, I started it again. I wanted to help this boy with what he was going through after his mother died. But of he went on his own, then more interesting characters join the story. Each one is so interesting and believable. But I will not write more, as the reader must travel this journey.

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    1. Glad to hear from someone else who liked it as much - a great book and, as you say, enthralling.

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