Tag Archives: Donna Tartt

The Popular and the Literary

In writing about and reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch I had the opportunity to talk to a few people about what shapes their decision to read a book. Quite a few people raised that in some cases they purposely *avoid* reading something when it gets too much popular attention (think Harry Potter) while others suggested that they read almost exclusively those books recommended from critics “top” lists. I suppose I’m interested in a couple of things: how do you choose what to read? how does popular/critical opinion shape your reaction to a book?

Feel free to discuss (please do!) or to contact me directly with your thoughts.

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The Goldfinch: Literary and popular

eve_mason_tgf_123013At just under 800 pages Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch isn’t the kind of book you take lightly. That’s a joke of course, because the subject of the book is far from light itself: the maturation of a boy grappling with the loss of family/innocence, the role of art and beauty in making life worth living, the bonds and responsibilities of affiliative relationships (as opposed to ‘filial,’ or familial relationships, affiliative are those relationships with those we freely choose) and the consequences (or lack thereof) of making ‘bad’ and ‘good’ choices (and whether such choices are, in the end, ours to make).

It is a rich, complex, heady story with masterful plot sequencing and character development. It is a book that has been uniformly celebrated by literary critics  and masses of readers in an unusual congruence of what is both literary and popular as both groups connect with the complexity of the protagonist, Theo, who is simultaneously sympathetic for his orphan-hood and frustrating for his continued terrible decision making. The art heist elements lend a certain suspense, the post-event narration allows an editorializing on events as they unfold that does double duty as assurance to readers and warning that supposedly innocuous events are going to have dire consequences. The atmosphere of the novel – a combination of the dire with the luxurious – speaks to the experience of this contemporary reader: a constant striving coupled with a certainty that at no point will the material objects ever amount to real feelings of security, safety or happiness.

While this reader (I might be so bold to say I am both literary and popular – bam!) delighted in the writing and the genius of the plot and its thematic questions, I found Theo and his story somewhat uneven. I devoured the story in Theo’s years in New York, yet found his time with and post-Boris (his great friend) to be alternately plodding and disconnected. I read Boris’ unpredictability and intensity as in some ways a scapegoat for Theo’s choices and also as convenient ways to resolve apparent impediments in Theo’s life. Boris to the rescue! Boris as catalyst! While the relationship between the two character is far from pat – in fact the evolution of their friendship and relationship is fascinating – Boris’s function in the novel at times reads as too much plot incitement.

So too my sympathy for Theo waned as the narrative continued. A characterization meant to remind the reader that we are only so tolerant of those with addiction, mental illness, those overcome with grief and trauma, that we are willing – for a time – to be gracious and understanding and then we want people to “get over it” to “move on” to “pull themselves together.” The Goldfinch resists this impulse. Instead we are made to suffer along with Theo as he makes, remakes, and makes again the same mistakes and poor decisions – while knowing that he’s doing so. I suppose the frustration and annoyance is, then, that I somehow want my fictional characters to do what I cannot. I want them to be braver, stronger, better than I am. So it’s not a complaint so much as a warning that Theo is not a hero, even if he has heroic aspirations, he is instead utterly human and truthful about what that means: to do the wrong thing over and over and to still (somehow) hope and plan to be better.

I find myself struggling to come out with a definite conclusion/recommendation on the novel. I suppose I don’t have to do that with these posts. I can, instead, give you my impressions and leave it to you to decide. Much in the same way, I suppose (though without the genius of Tartt) as the novel does in asking the reader, in the end, to pass judgement on what makes for a good life, a life good enough, and a life that we somehow fall/stumble into without deciding only to realize – with horror, sadness or resignation – that the last page is fast approaching.

 

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The Secret History: Whiz, Bang!

       

I’m behind on my blogging by TWO books! Sincerest apologies to those of you waiting with bated breath to find out what I read on the great family cottage vacation 2012. And the scoop? I made my way first through Donna Tartt’s *The Secret History* which I finished now TWO weeks ago (and so my review will necessarily miss some of its usual punch as I find myself fiddling about in my defective memory…). 

The story opens its first scene with the murder of Bunny. And then back tracks in time to invite the reader to follow along in discovering how six young people could murder a friend. The plot proper begins with our first person protagonist arriving at his liberal arts college and finding himself – nearly by accident – enrolled in a highly selective Greek program: he will be taught all of his classes by one professor and in a class with only six other students. The plot builds slowly – the book comes in at just over 500 pages – with the layering of character motivations, complex relationship and the kinds of influences they are suspect to (the usual sorts of influences that 20 somethings should worry about – alcohol, procrastination, sleep deprivation, sexual desire – but also the more pernicious influences of their narcissistic professor, their callously indifferent classmate (psychotic?) and the danger of rationalism taken to its extreme). 

For our protagonist events and decisions seem to happen *to* him, as if by accident or change, evoking questions of free will, determinism and ethical behaviour. Indeed, that the students are all intensively studying Ancient Greek nicely aligns with the thematic concerns with the extent of individual will, the hazards of an overly rational mind, the limits of community and the perils of group persuasion. 

The novel doesn’t spend all its time in these heady philosophical questions; rather, the richly layered and complex plot pulls these questions to the fore without explicitly evoking them in a marvellous demonstration of the literary possibilities of a well crafted mystery-thriller. 

I’d strongly recommend this one to anyone interested in such a literary thriller. It comes with full character development, unpredictable – even as it is self-reflective – decision making by such characters, and an entirely suspenseful plot. Well done. 

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