Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Goldfinch

I don't know where to start with this book.  When I finished it this week, all I could think was--wow. Maybe because there are so many average, so-so books out there that when we read one that is truly fine literature, it literally knocks us off our feet. And that is how I felt about this book. First of all, the language—wow. There were many instances where I went back and reread a paragraph because the words were just so beautiful and perfect—how can someone write like this I wonder? So many issues populate this book--art, beauty, truth, loss, drug culture, antiques and restoration, friendship,  mental illness, coincidence, loyalty, love-- but at its core it is a tale of traumatic loss-- a missing painting and a lost boy.

The painting that goes missing is a real painting, The Goldfinch, by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and the painting is a major part of the entire story, as the action moves from New York City to Las Vegas, back to New York, and finally to Amsterdam.

"Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only - if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things - beautiful things - that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another? ...You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that's not even to mention the people separated from us by time - four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we're gone - it'll never strike anybody in the same way and the great majority of people it'll never strike in any deep way at all but - a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you."

What a wonderful way to think about a piece of art, that thread that joins us all who appreciate it, now and forever. Coincidentally, the real Goldfinch is now on display at the Frick Collection in New York City as part of an exhibit of Dutch masterpieces, and the museum has reported record crowds because of this book.

I’m not going to summarize the story, other than to say it is the story of a young boy named Theo, and how one event alters the rest of his life. We meet wonderful and memorable characters–Boris, his Ukrainian/ Russian friend, Hobie, an antique restorer, literate and kind, his schemer/gambler father, and a young girl named Pippa, to whom Theo is forever connected. There is action, suspense, and the sense of place is so well done--you feel like you are walking with Theo through the streets of New York and Amsterdam, and the half-finished housing development in Las Vegas. You feel the comfort and charm of Hobie's dusty antique shop in the West Village.

I think The Goldfinch was probably the best book I read all year.  If I had to give it  any criticism, it is that is a bit too long. At 771 pages it requires a major commitment. But even though there were parts that could have been edited, every time I picked it up I was happy to realize there was still a lot left to read.

And this quote from the end, stays with me for sure.

"That life - whatever else it is - is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch."

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