Audiobook review – “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

I have probably spent more time listening to audiobooks in the last twelve months than in all of the previous four years of subscribing to an audiobook service put together! There were in fact times in those previous four years when I suspended my membership because I was building up so many credits. I mainly listened to them on long drives alone and these were relatively infrequent. Last year, however, I found myself, like many people, going out for a walk or run daily. I haven’t walked more in the last twelve months than I did before, but my walking these days is less about purpose (going somewhere to get something) and more about pleasure, nature and exercise, and, well, let’s be honest, because when something is rationed you realise how important it is to you.

I’ve reviewed a number of my particular favourite audiobooks on here: Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London series (I listened to three out of the four last year), Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain, and of course David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries. I have yet to review the audiobook that was the absolute standout for me in 2020, though, and which I listened to in the autumn – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I can only put my reticence in posting a review down to being in complete awe of Tartt’s genius as a writer, and the feeling that I could never write anything that would in any way do justice to the mastery on display in this book.

I will try and summarise the plot as briefly as possible. We first meet the main character Theodore “Theo” Decker when he is thirteen years old. He lives with his mother, who works on an art journal, in New York City, his alcoholic father having left the family some years earlier. Theo is in some difficulty at school and he and his mother have an appointment with the Principal. To kill time before the meeting, Theo’s mother takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A terrorist bomb explodes while they are there, killing Theo’s mother and many others, and devastating the building. In the middle of the wreckage Theo spots an elderly man, whom he had noticed earlier on in the visit because he was accompanied by a sullen, but ephemeral looking young girl of about Theo’s age, carrying an instrument case. Theo goes to the old man, who is dying from his injuries. The old man gives Theo a ring from his finger and a curious message which it will later transpire refers to an antique shop that he Welty Blackwell, ran with his partner James “Hobie” Hobart. During their brief time together, in what was a room devoted to Dutch paintings from the 17th century, Theo finds himself captivated by a tiny picture by Carel Fabritius called The Goldfinch. Welty notices Theo’s fascination and with his dying breath seems to encourage Theo to take it. The explosion scene is compulsive listening, jaw-dropping.

Theo takes the painting and manages to find his own way out. He takes cover back at home, not knowing if his mother is alive or dead. Eventually, the authorities track him down and he is placed in temporary care with the family of a school friend, Andy Barbour, a slightly sickly, precociously intelligent boy, who, like Theo, does not quite fit in at school. Andy’s family is from the Upper East Side – wealthy, formal, slightly odd, and more than a little dysfunctional. But after a period of adjustment Theo and the family gradually get used to one another, until, at the point the Barbours announce that they would like formally to adopt Theo, the boy’s life takes a dramatic turn.

I wish to say nothing more of the plot, because it is simply too delicious and too clever and if you have not read the book yourself and are tempted to do so, I want you to enjoy every single moment of shock and drama.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius dated 1654

Theo does not reveal that he has the painting for many years. And it burns in his conscience, influences almost all his actions and decisions. The plot is a joy, an absolute roller-coaster, and the character of Theo is complex and brilliantly-drawn. He is in turns damaged and damaging through the book, but all the while the two things that constantly influence his life are the catastrophic loss of his beloved mother in such traumatic circumstances, and the concealment of the painting, an extremely valuable internationally renowned piece, which becomes the subject of a worldwide search. Theo’s increasing paranoia in relation to the painting, has echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In addition to Theo there are a clutch of other superb characters: Boris, his Nevada schoolfriend who becomes a major influence on events in his life; Hobie, the business partner of the old dying man in the museum who Theo tracks down; Pippa, the young girl with the music case, Welty’s granddaughter; and, of course, Theo’s mother, who, although she dies early, is a constant presence in the narrative.

This book has everything: brilliant characters, brilliant plot, action, reflection, literary merit. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Donna Tartt in 2014 (my second Pulitzer Prize-winner reviewed in a week!) and was adapted for screen in 2019. I’m not sure I want to see the film. There is surely no way it could do justice to the book? Although I note that it has Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson among the cast so I’m tempted.

I have no idea why I have not read this before; The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel, published in 1992, is one of my favourite books of all time, a masterpiece, so you would have thought I’d be hanging on everything she has ever written. She is hardly prolific though – her second book, The Little Friend, did not come until ten years after her first, in 2002. That was the start of my childbearing, aka reading wilderness, years, so I’m not really surprised I didn’t get around to that one. Tartt’s books are long – The Goldfinch is 880 pages, or 32 hours of listening joy, and The Little Friend is almost 600 pages – there was no way I would have got through that with a two year old!

The Goldfinch is highly, highly recommended. And the painting, a fragment of which is shown on the cover of the book, is utterly beautiful. That’s it, I’m out of superlatives.

Book review – “Grown Ups” by Marian Keyes

I posted last week about my ups and down dealing with life during Covid-19. It sparked a lot of comments from friends about others feeling similar emotional swings. It just goes to show that you can’t rely on social media to reflect life accurately; if I look at my Facebook or Instagram feeds it looks as if everyone is having an amazing time and achieving all sorts of interesting challenges! Perhaps everyone else is just ‘faking it till they make it’ as well, putting a brave face on, or, if their profile is also their livelihood, perhaps they are thinking about their business. I am not normally someone who suffers from anxiety or other mental health issues, at least not at the severe end of the spectrum, but it strikes me that more openness and honesty would help those who do.

I mentioned in my last post that one of the books that has really helped me this last few weeks is Grown Ups, the latest novel from Marian Keyes. I have long admired Marian; though I have not read any of her other books, I often hear her on the radio. She is also very active on Twitter and is hilarious. She is able to project her personality very strongly, she is forthcoming about her vulnerabilities and her frailties and she is an engaging and witty speaker. Grown Ups was suggested at my book club for April and I listened to it on audiobook. I absolutely loved it and especially Marian’s wonderfully authentic narration.

The novel is set over the course of six months in the life of one extended family – the Caseys – which comprises the three separate families of brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam and their various wives, girlfriends and children. The novel is set mostly in Ireland and mostly in Dublin, where the main characters all live. It opens on the occasion of Johnny’s 49th birthday, and the three brothers and their families have gathered together,, as they do frequently and regularly. These are usually organised (and paid for) by wealthy Type A personality Jessie, Johnny’s wife, successful business owner of a chain of stores selling high-end and exotic groceries. All of a sudden, Ed’s wife Cara begins to have what can only be described as a mental meltdown during dinner. Although I found this initial scene quite difficult to follow because I did not, of course, know any of the characters, it is quite clear that Cara’s outburst is entirely out of character, deeply embarrassing for many of the attendees, exposing behaviours they believed they had masked pretty successfully, and that it is going to cause deep fissures in what might otherwise appear to be a ‘happy’ family. It’s as if Cara has taken some sort truth drug.

All is in chaos and then Marian takes us back six months and we begin to explore the sequence of events that has led to this breakdown. These include an Easter break in a smart hotel in Killarney, a weekend away to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the Casey brothers’ awful parents (which goes a long way to explaining the various ‘issues’ their sons have), a hilarious but disastrous murder mystery weekend for Jessie’s 50th birthday and a holiday in Tuscany. Most of these extravagant events are organised and paid for by Jessie, who, as an only child, longs for the happy extended family.

Although it’s the three men who are related, the story seems mainly to revolve around their partners – Johnny’s wife Jessie, who married him a few years after she had lost her beloved first husband Rory, Cara, Ed’s wife, a mild-mannered hotel receptionist, who has an eating disorder, and Nell, the young and lovely set designer, who marries feckless Liam after a whirlwind romance.

At first I found some of the scenes overly long, which made the pace quite laboured in the first quarter or so of the book, but on reflection I think this is necessary to building the personalities of the characters, understanding their motivations, and really getting inside their heads. By the time I got to the last quarter I could not put it down. I became totally lost in the world of the Caseys and found I cared very deeply about what happened to them all. Best of all Marian’s dialogue feels entirely authentic and made me feel nostalgic for get-togethers over the years I have had with my own extended family of Irish in-laws, though none quite so eventful as those depicted here!

This book was a real tonic and I recommend it highly. I will definitely explore more of Marian Keyes’s books.

What books have kept your spirits up during the pandemic lockdown?