Friday, January 31, 2014

wishing for sympathetic characters and without all the dissonance

The county library waiting list for a new novel, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, was almost up to 300 when I checked its availability online.  I was late in seeing a book review in the NY Times, or hearing one on National Public Radio, my two usual sources, and these early reviews for the book had been good.  Luckily, I noticed one of the library branches had a large-type edition, and the hold list for it was much shorter.  With my eyesight not as good as it once was, and with the standard font size edition clocking in at over 800 pages, I requested the large type book, which was over 1200 pages long!  The thought of holding a book that heavy each evening makes one think that a Kindle might not be such a bad thing.

After the Bookmobile dropped off my new treasure I settled in for some pleasurable evenings of reading.  At first the story seemed to have promise.  Scenes of a slightly selfish boy (think of This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff) and his art-loving mother, struggling to get by living in New York City, and their hurried visit one day to the art museum, which culminates in a terrorist bombing of the museum and death of the mother.  A compelling plot, so far.  Gradually, though, some overwrought language makes itself noticeable, in the form of catchy metaphors and weird similes which don't really elucidate anyone's feelings or situations, but which might make for some memorable rhythms in a rap tune.  I'm sometimes too quick to make negative judgements so I pressed on with my reading.  

After his mother's death the boy is given temporary refuge from the Children's Protective Society as the ward of a schoolmate's family, upperclass socialites.  Things look promising, but his deadbeat father, who'd abandoned his family years before, shows up with a druggie girlfriend and assumes custody of his son.  Dad and girlfriend take the son back with them to Las Vegas and a weirdly sterile world of McMansions, spacious buildings lingering in various states of arrested development since the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble.  One of them is their rented home.  Dad is pursuing some sort of numerical scheme to defeat the odds at the gambling casinos, and doing well at it for a while--until he isn't.  Meanwhile, the boy hooks up with a streetwise, multi-lingual Russian kid, who introduces him to an astonishing assortment of pills and opiates.  They rarely seem to go to school, and their biggest problem is keeping food in the house, and the pizza bakery refuses to deliver out to this wasteland.

The father is killed, either a suicide or murdered when he is unable to pay his gambling debts.  The boy returns to New York, and pursues a brief, unrequited love for a girl his age who had lost her guardian in the same terrorist bombing at the museum.  The promising girl character disappears into the custody of an Aunt, to be raised in Europe.  A weird plot turn.  Flash forward, and the boy is a young man.  He is a success in the antiques business through highly dishonest dealings, and is still a heavy consumer of illegal drugs.

All things considered, the overwrought, bombastic language, unsatisfying plot turns, and shallow personality of the main character, defeated my attempts to stay engaged after I'd finished about two-thirds of the book.  I thought perhaps I'd been somehow unfair and very unkind to the author, but after reading a similarly critical review by Francine Proust in the NY Review of Books (Jan. 9, 2014) I have to conclude there really are big problems with the book.
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