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.

Facebook Reading Challenge July – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

The start of the month is rolling around with alarming regularity! It does not seem four weeks since I was setting June’s title (Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage”) – which I still haven’t finished by the way. I’ve had a very busy few months and this has seriously curtailed my reading time. I try to read for an hour every day, which means I get through one and a bit books a week, and I find this is by far the best way for me to relax and re-energise. It also gets me out of ‘doing’ mode and into ‘creative thinking’ mode – a must for the writing side of my life. The focus of recent weeks, however, has been very much about ‘doing’ and early summer is usually a time when I know I’m not going to have much writing time. This blog has suffered too….

Fear of Falling imgHowever, the full diary will be emptying out a little as this month progresses, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to restore my daily reading hour. My selection for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month will also help. The theme is contemporary crime fiction and I’ve chosen the latest book by north-west (England) crime writer Cath Staincliffe, Fear of Fallling, which was published last year. I met Cath at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago and she was such a lovely, warm, down to earth person that she really inspired me to think that I too might be able to pursue a writing life. Crime is not usually my genre of choice, but I read a couple of her books, including The Girl in the Green Dress, which I reviewed on this blog, and was gripped. Cath tackles major contemporary issues fearlessly and her writing style draws you subtly into the world she creates.

Fear of Falling is about the friendship between two women Lydia and Bel who have known each other for many years. As mothers, both face challenges – Bel has a difficult relationship with her daughter Freya, while Lydia and her partner adopt after she is unable to conceive. Lydia’s daughter Chloe’s actions as a teenager place immense pressures on the relationship between the two friends.

I’m really looking forward to getting into this; recent titles I have set on the Reading Challenge have been hard-going. I’m not expecting this to be ‘light’ but I’m hoping for a page-turner to get lost in and get me back on my reading track!

 

I would love for you to join us on the reading challenge. The book is available on Kindle if you can’t get hold of a copy.

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Book review: “The Girl in the Green Dress” by Cath Staincliffe

Last week I posted a review of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the first of two crime fiction novels I read over the Christmas holidays. The Girl in the Green Dress could hardly be more different, despite also being a crime novel and it is indicative of how the way we entertain ourselves has changed in the eighty odd years that separate the publication of these two books. Where Agatha Christie provided escapism, upper class characters, exotic locations and traditional murder mystery with the big reveal at the end, Cath Staincliffe’s book provides gritty realism, some repellent characters, familiar locations and a limited amount of mystery. There is no job here for the reader to play the detective, spot the clues and guess the outcome. The job of the reader is to engage with the characters at a deep level.

The girl in the green dress imgThe book starts with 18 year-old Allie Kennaway, and her friends heading out for their college prom night. They are at Allie’s home with her father Steve and younger sister Teagan. Steve is a single parent, his wife, the girls’ mother, Sarah, having died a couple of years earlier from cancer. Allie, we learn is a transgender woman, formerly Aled.

We meet the other characters who will form the main part of the drama, in quite quick succession: Donna, the workaholic Detective Inspector, who has four children and a less than happy marriage; Jade, a new detective, Asian, and whose mental health problems are hinted at early on; Martin, a long-standing colleague of Donna’s, a horny-handed old-fashioned copper. The murder takes place quite early on; Allie’s body is discovered in a deserted street near the nightclub where the prom was being held. Soon after, we meet Sonia, single mother of the feckless youth Oliver, who spends his days eating junk food, hanging out with his mates and playing online games. His culpability for the crime is fairly obvious.

If we know whodunnit, then what is the story about? Well, there is a fairly major and dramatic plot twist, which, of course, I shan’t reveal. Mostly, though, it’s about the characters and their internal lives, their hopes, dreams, motivations and frustrations. The police (Donna, Jade and Martin) are all flawed in their own individual ways and are trying to deal in a systematic and process-orientated way with a terrible event, trying to set aside their personal selves, and yet completely unable to do so. Work and ‘home’ cross over in the most challenging ways. Much like the crime shows I watch on television (I’m thinking Happy Valley, Morse, Prime Suspect), the issues of the central character are part of and not separate from the story. Although, for Agatha Christie, Poirot’s personality is key to the narrative, it does not form part of the plot in the way that more modern crime fiction does. Or perhaps you would disagree?

There is also the storyline of transgender young people and their experiences, which the author handles deftly with great care and sensitivity. It is a huge and topical issue to tackle and the result is commendable.

I struggled to get into this at first. The clipped writing style, which reminded of the way police officers narrate radio dramas, ie not in fully-formed sentences, was off-putting to me, and I found the structure, short chapters within chapters focussing on a different character in turn, meant it did not flow so easily. Having just read Agatha Christie, however, knowing the murderer from the outset seemed odd and I wondered what on earth the rest of the book was going to be about! There is that twist, of course, and as I got to know the characters, so I began to engage with them and their stories more.

I did get hooked and enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a quick read, though its grittiness makes it hard-going in places; the reader is not spared any detail! I’d recommend this book, though, and I will definitely read more of Cath Staincliffe’s work.

If you are a reader of crime fiction do you prefer the modern or the more old-fashioned Christie-style writing?

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