The best book I’ve read this year was a total surprise. I hadn’t seen the author’s two previous books, although the first one got a lot of attention. And it was only noticing the “Pulitzer Prize” sticker on the front cover of this one at my local Barnes and Noble that got my attention. I was intrigued. There was a picture of a bird. And it was a big book, nearly 800 pages. The thought ran through my head, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
But some strong instinct, some irresistible intuitive urge, made me buy it. It was almost like I had no choice. And it may actually be the best, most completely involving novel I’ve read in at least five or ten years.
The Goldfinch, by Mississippi-born Donna Tartt, is named for a famous painting, done in 1654, but the book takes place in something like present-day New York, mainly, but also in Las Vegas and Amsterdam. It follows the adventures of a precocious but academically uninterested thirteen-year-old boy through a suddenly traumatic period and then into the subsequent years of his life, up to his late twenties.
The book is, first of all, a real page-turner. And, at its core, it’s an extended reflection on the power of our actions and inactions in a sometimes-crazy world. The main character, Theo Decker, does something, early on, you could say, instinctively, that has implications he doesn’t at the time fully grasp, and as he begins to understand the potentially damaging consequences, he hesitates making the choices that alone could undo, or at least mitigate, those very big problems. In the initial instance, it was almost like he had no choice but to do what he did. And yet, when opportunities later develop to possibly reverse the course of things, his failure to take the obvious action and do what we wish he would do, seems on one level mysterious, and yet on another level understandable, in context, at each juncture.
Further circumstances beyond his control intervene, and we see him hide from the realities he faces by indulging in various forms of self-soothing and self-medicating behaviors, mostly involving more drugs than you would ever imagine, all throughout his teens, and then into his twenties, rather than grappling as he should with the things that confront him.
But this sketchy, high-level abstract of the tale can’t possibly convey the nature of the richly realized story, the fully imagined settings in which Theo’s problems grow, or the fascinating characters who come into his life along the way. I don’t think I’ve ever been so involved with the characters in a story, since my very different experience of Harry Potter and his friends.
Then, within the last hundred pages or so of the book, we get major philosophical payoffs from the story. And some of these reflections are almost worthy of Blaise Pascal in their vividness. Beauty, truth, meaning, chance, depth, choice, consequences, and surprise: It’s all there. And the ultimate results of Theo’s actions are so strikingly different from what we have come to expect that musing on them will keep you philosophizing for quite a time to come.
I just finished writing a series of novels – eight, as a matter of fact – totally well over two thousand pages. Entering that fictional world has involved the most intellectual excitement and fun I’ve ever had. And, if you might still be looking for some great summer reading, I’d love to be able to recommend these to you. But they exist only inside my computer. I haven’t even shown them to a publisher yet. So, shhhhh.
That, however, leaves me free to urge you to get your hands on The Goldfinch as soon as possible. I think you’ll be amazed.
But don't read any reviews. They give away far too much. Experience it all as you should!