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 – “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

I announced my February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge last week. I also mentioned how much I loved January’s choice, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The theme was an American classic. I had chosen that theme to celebrate the inauguration (at last!) of President Joe Biden and his Vice-President Kamala Harris. I can tell you I breathed a huge sigh of relief on 20 January! The Color Purple was a particularly fitting choice, given its feminist themes and exploration of racial segregation and discrimination. It was a book I had considered a couple of years ago for a previous reading challenge when the theme was a feminist novel. Back then, I chose Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and I feel quite glad now that I left The Color Purple until 2021.

I feel slightly embarrassed to be calling this post a ‘book review’; embarrassed because it is surely a book that I (everyone!) should have read long before now. How had I not?! You don’t need me to tell you that it’s brilliant – the Pulitzer Prize judges did that back in 1983. The book was made into a film in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg, and won a clutch of Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Whoopi Goldberg in the lead role of Celie, and Best Supporting Actress awards for both Oprah Winfrey as Sofia and Margaret Avery as Shug.

Because both the novel and the film are so well-known, I believe I actually thought I knew the story and what it was all about, but I am ashamed to say I really did not. Set in Georgia in the early twentieth century (and going up to the early years of the second World War), segregation, racism and black poverty of course provide the backdrop, but the book is so much more than this. Firstly there is the sisterly love between Celie and Nettie, which endures even though they are separated for decades; Celie remains in Georgia, while Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary. The book is brilliantly structured as a series of letters, initially between Celie and her ‘God’, and later between Celie and Nettie, when the two women are separated. I think this is a difficult format to pull off- it may look easy but could become tired or pedestrian in a weaker author’s hands, but Walker pulls it off in masterclass fashion and it gives the book a surprising amount of pace.

The second somewhat surprising theme for me was the resilience of the African-American woman, not just Celie and Nettie, but also Shug Avery (who becomes Celie’s lover, best friend, and is the former lover of Celie’s husband “Mister”), and Sofia, Celie’s step-daughter-in-law. The men in the book are largely feckless, cruel, violent and controlling, but somehow these women rise above them, not only surviving, but thriving.

Thirdly, there is the theme of love; I have already mentioned the intense sisterly love between Celie and Nettie (and the ending will have you weeping), but many other different kinds of love are explored here – the sexual love that Celie enjoys with liberal bohemian Shug, who shows her another way of being a woman in America at that time, and opens up whole new worlds for her. There is also love that is turbulent, between Sofia and Harpo, and love between different age groups, as with Nettie and her husband. It is a tribute to open-mindedness and the joy of love in all its forms.

Finally, there is a difficult theme, which is that of violence, including sexual violence, within the African-American, former slave, community. Celie is basically a victim of child rape, perpetrated by her stepfather, by whom she has two children who are given away to another family. She is married off to a wicked man (“Mister”) who also rapes her, and treats her as his own slave when it is clear he only wanted her to cook and clean for the family that the death of his first wife has left him with. We are left wondering whether the treatment of the black community by their former slave-owner masters has been the cause of this social dysfunction, particularly as it relates to the lowly position that women occupy. Readers are left in further turmoil, however, by the descriptions Nettie provides in her missives from Africa about the tribe amongst whom she lives, where she refers to the widespread practice of ‘cutting girls’ (female gential mutilation). Nettie admires the tribe and learns a great deal from them, but she cannot accept this practice. When the tribe is displaced by white colonial settlers wishing to exploit the natural resources the land offers, Nettie is appalled and foretells the devastating consequences of western industrial expansion on the natural world and the people who have lived in harmony with it for generations. Nettie is further disillusioned when, travelling via Europe (specifically, England) to report back to the authorities of the church to which she and her husband belong, on their work and the horror of the practices they have witnessed by the colonialists, their protests are met with indifference.

It is really extraordinary how the author does so much in a relatively short book and with such a simple format.

So, at last, I can say that I have read this book. If you have not done so, then it really needs to go on your TBR list. And though I will now watch the prize-winning film, I truly doubt whether it can cover everything that the novel encapsulates.

Highly, highly recommended.

Book review: “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth

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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.

2018-07-23 16.19.23The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.

Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.

Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.

Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.

The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.

As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.

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In American Pastoral Roth explodes the idea of the ‘American dream’.

This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.

Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.

If you have read this book I would love to hear your thoughts.