Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

I have been waiting more than a decade for Donna Tartt to publish another book, and by the time The Goldfinch was finally released I was rather afraid to read it. The initial description was uninspiring: Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother, lives with various friends as he tries to avoid becoming a ward of the state, something about the art underworld. But this book is almost 800 pages so of course there's more to it, and the vague pre-pub reviews didn't include any of the really good stuff. The "accident" that kills Theo's mother was actually the bombing of a museum, and before he escapes, Theo steals an extremely valuable piece of art. He met a couple of mysterious strangers in the museum just before the attack who led him to seek out an antique furniture dealer named Hobie, who takes Theo under his wing. During his teenage years he ends up living for a while in Las Vegas where he meets Boris, a shiftless Ukrainian kid who becomes Theo's best friend.

I need to stop here, just to say that I could read an entire book about Boris. This kid has lived everywhere and speaks several languages (though primarily Russian), and despite his troubled life is good-natured, laid back, and extremely loyal. He disappears for years at a time, but always shows up eventually. His friendship with Theo (or "Potter" as he calls Theo, who bears a resemblance to J.K. Rowling's wizard) is one of the best fictional friendships I've read. They are both motherless, their fathers alcoholics, and these shared experiences are enough to draw together two people with otherwise very different life experiences.

Theo is pretty great too, well-intentioned and easy to sympathize with, though he makes many poor decisions. Constantly mourning his mother, while also being weighed down by his secret stolen art, these problems adversely and repeatedly affect his life choices and relationships. He and Boris do a lot of drugs during the time they are in Vegas together, and Theo carries his habits back to New York with him where he continues to dig himself deeper into a hole while outwardly appearing to have his act together and successfully helping run Hobie's business. But eventually his past catches up with him and totally blows up in his face, setting off a whole chain of events that make for a tense and action-packed climax.

There is so much more to this book than I can really express. Theo is very close to the Barbour family, through his school friend Andy, and this family could be an entire novel in themselves. One of the people Theo met just before the attack was a girl his age named Pippa, who he was immediately drawn to and could never quite get over, just one more thing haunting him for years. His relationship with Hobie, too, was both heartwarming and complicated and the plot line exploring the world of stolen art was fascinating.

Donna Tartt's writing is just as beautiful as ever, the story just as immersive. By the time I finished reading, I felt less like I had read a novel and more like I had an experience. It's too early to tell how much it will stick with me over time, but even now I can count it among one of the best books I've read this year.

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