Book Sale!

Dear Readers,

While I have a book review planned (I’m in the middle of Emily Perkins’ A Novel About My Wife, which is structured unlike any other book I’ve read – no chapters!), I am so excited to share the new reads I got at my city’s annual book sale. Last year, I bought roughly 10 books, most of which I chose because I felt like I needed more intellectual reading material; I snatched up any books with award stickers. But then I never got around to reading them. This year, I took a different approach and bought books only from my current favored genre: mysteries. And I literally bought what I could carry (about a baker’s dozen of hardbacks). They are:

  • Sandra Brown, Deadline (What a find! I have been on the waiting list at the library for this book for weeks)
  • Harlan Coben, The Woods (A rarity – a Coben I haven’t read)
  • Michael Connelly, The Harry Bosch Novels: The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Concrete Blonde (I am always inspired by journalists-turned-novelists; I’m hoping to join that club some day)
  • Sue Grafton, S Is for Silence (I’m on a mission to collect them all!)
  • John Grisham, The Confession
  • Kay Hooper, Sleeping with the Enemy (I haven’t read a romantic thriller in quite a while)
  • J.A. Jance, Queen of the Night
  • Ed McBain, Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear
  • Sara Paretsky, Hard Time
  • James Patterson, Honeymoon (I made a promise to myself awhile ago that I would not read any more James Patterson unless he wrote the book by himself, but the truth is that I’ve been wanting to read Honeymoon for a long time)
  • Nancy Pickard, The Truth Hurts (Fingers crossed this one is as good as The Scent of Rain and Lightning, which I loved)
  • Lisa Scottoline, Accused
  • Karin Slaughter, Fracture (A favorite writer, through her grittiness occasionally borders on disturbing for me)
  • Jennifer Weiner, Then Came You (An exception to the mysteries-only approach)

I can’t wait to get started!

Sue Grafton, “D Is for Deadbeat”

St. Martin’s Paperbacks; http://us.macmillan.com/disfordeadbeat/suegraftonIn Kinsey Millhone’s latest case, there is an abundance of flaxen-haired suspects: the murder victim’s daughter, his (second) wife, three women related to a previous crime. The victim, John Daggett, was a charming conman with a taste for the bottle, and the collateral damage he left in his wake makes it easy for Kinsey to deduce who(might’ve)dunit; it’s separating one blonde from another, one alibi and motive from another, that proves to be her biggest challenge.

Plot Overview: Family, Enemies and Liars

When John Daggett first speaks with Kinsey, she knows something isn’t quite right, but she can’t pinpoint what it is. Daggett simply wants her to deliver a check for $25,000 to a Tony Gahan. He prepays for Kinsey’s services and slips out.

By Monday morning, Kinsey discovers that the paycheck bounced. The stingy private detective decides to track Daggett down – who would work for free? – only to find out from his battered wife, Lovella, that he’s hit the streets.

Before Kinsey can find him, his body washes up on the beach. Although one mystery is (sort of) solved, Kinsey has a hunch that Daggett was murdered. Now on his daughter, Barbara’s, payroll, Kinsey learns of Daggett’s other wife and a wealth of suspects. Daggett, an alcoholic, killed five people in an automobile accident a few years earlier; Tony Gahan was the only survivor of the family wiped out by the sot’s bender. Daggett served a short sentence and had only just been released when he sauntered into Kinsey’s office.

With plenty of potential murderers to sift through, Kinsey needs only eliminate who didn’t do it. But what if everyone had a reason to kill John Daggett?

Criticisms and Compliments

With D falling fourth in the alphabet, Grafton is just settling into the series, and D Is for Deadbeat allows her to focus on Kinsey’s greatest strength (and weakness): her vulnerability. Despite all of her protestations and her desire for solitude, Kinsey is a feeler. That is, she is deeply affected by those with whom she comes into contact. Case in point, Tony Gahan, the recipient of Daggett’s stolen $25,000. Like Kinsey, Tony’s parents were killed in a car accident, and an aunt is raising him. He’s also troubled, and though he sees a therapist, his grades are low, his social life practically non-existent, and he is plagued by migraines.

Although Kinsey has “all the feelings” (which gives her an appealing depth and explains her loner tendencies), she has a dry sense of humor that balances out her range of emotions. If only all detectives were as moved by the incoherent ramblings of a rabid religious fanatic at a funeral that features a wax-like corpse and a drunken wife clad in a cocktail dress.

D Is for Deadbeat is an entertaining read, and like all of the books in the series, features consistently good writing and unforgettable characters.

Source:

  • Grafton, Sue. D Is for Deadbeat. Henry Holt and Co., 2010 ISBN 9781429909327

E. Lockhart, “We Were Liars”

Cover design, Heather Kelly; http://www.randomhouse.com/book/211497/we-were-liars-by-e-lockhart“I like a twist of meaning,” Cadence Sinclair Eastman says. At 17 years old, the upper-class, white daughter of a prominent family bears the semblance of old money: a big house, a private-school education, a tendency toward romanticizing wealth (and poverty). In reality, however, Cady suffers from selective amnesia and is plagued by migraines. Her memories of her last summer at the family island, Beechwood, are shrouded with trauma, and she only knows that something led her to a head injury.

Plot Overview: Friends, Memories and Tragedy

Cadence has spent every summer on Beechwood Island with her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny’s pseudo-cousin, Gat, through his mother’s Indian boyfriend. When Cadence and Gat first meet, attraction sparks into love.

While summer on a private beach may seem idyllic for the teenagers, trouble is brewing in another generation. Cadence’s mom, Penny, and her two sisters, Carrie and Bess, have little to show for a life built on trust fund money, excellent educations and shopping. The desire to keep up appearances drives the three sisters to greed and gives their widowed father the power to game play. Frustrated, the women turn to their children to win affection from Granddad.

The teens refuse to appeal to Granddad’s (lack of) generosity, and though Cadence’s memory is hazy, she and Johnny, Mirren and Gat, “The Liars,” seek independence from family schemes. But then Cady wakes up in a hospital room, her mind wiped of summer memories. It’s only when she returns to Beechwood Island two years later that she figures out what that independence was, what the feud lead to, and what little meaning there is in money and manipulation.

Criticisms and Compliments

We Were Liars owes much of its popularity to good marketing: “We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from New York Times bestselling author, National Book Award finalist, and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.” And, to give credit where credit is due, the ending is good (if a rule-breaker), and the story itself is surprisingly fast-paced; it’s possible to read the entire novel in one afternoon.

Despite the quick pacing and twist ending, however, We Were Liars suffers from a couple of weaknesses. First, the story is one of romance and family dysfunction, but Lockhart also touches on race relations and socio-economic status; had she incorporated those aspects more, the novel could have had more depth (though, in all fairness, the narrator is a teenager, not an adult). Second, Cadence varies from linear storytelling to speaking in verse to creating fairytales based on her family’s problems. The differing styles could be reflective of her head injury and her muddled memory (the ambiguous timeline in her stories certainly does), but it reads a little funny.

In any case, We Were Liars is meant for young teen readers who would most likely be shocked by the ending and charmed by Cadence’s narration.

Source:

  • E. Lockhart. We Were Liars. Delacorte Press, 2014 ISBN 9780385741262

Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

Cover image, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; http://www.randomhouse.com/book/196153/the-book-thief-by-markus-zusakAlthough Death is busy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the life of a girl piques his interest. He comes close to her over the years, lifting up the souls of the ones she loves to a sometimes milky white, other times red or gray sky. But he waits for her long after World War Two ends, taking her hand to relive her past. She was the book thief.

Plot Overview: Loss, Survival and Death

When Death first meets Liesel, she is on a train with her mother and her brother, Werner; it is he whom Death visits. As Death carries the little boy away, Liesel turns to discover Werner staring blankly at the floor. What follows is the start of Liesel’s thieving (and nightmares); after she and her mother bury the boy, Liesel pockets her first stolen book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

Liesel soon finds herself living with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, on Himmel (Heaven) Street in Molching, Germany. Rosa is a foul-mouthed, rough woman with a big heart; Hans is silver-eyed and kind. He discovers Liesel’s inability to read and write, so every night, when she wakes screaming from nightmares, he sits with her to read.

Liesel world soon expands to include Rudy Steiner, the boy-next-door with a crush on his new neighbor; the mayor’s wife, a client of Rosa, who has an extensive private library; and, eventually, Max, a fist-fighting Jew hiding in the Hubermann’s basement.

Despite Liesel’s growing happiness (and stealing habits), death is never too far way. Neither is war.

Criticisms and Compliments

What’s remarkable about The Book Thief is not its subject (there are several excellent World War II reads for young adults – Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, The Diary of Anne Frank, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), nor its descriptions of tragedy, but the language. Markus Zusak writes unlike any other. What is invisible becomes visible (not unlike Death), what is inanimate becomes animate, what is normal becomes extraordinary. A small sample:

  • “‘Christ!’ shouted Arthur. ‘The Farmer!’ It was his next word, however, that frightened. He called it out as if he’d already been attacked with it. His mouth ripped open. The word flew out, and the word was ax.”
  • “Outside, through the circle she’d made, Liesel could see the tall man’s fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times until it hit the ground.”
  • “Their glasses chimed together, and the moment Liesel raised it to her mouth, she was bitten by the fizzy, sickly sweet taste of champagne. Her reflexes forced her to spit it on her papa’s overalls, watching it foam and drizzle. A shot of laughter followed from all of them, and Hans encouraged her to give it another try. On the second attempt, she was able to swallow it and enjoy the taste of a glorious broken rule. It felt great. The bubbles ate her tongue. They prickled her stomach. Even as they walked to the next job, she could feel the warmth of pins and needles inside her.”

The use of texture continues with Death’s (and Zusak’s) use of color. The color of the sky, of Rudy’s hair, of blood and flags and snow all contribute to the surreal quality of a book that deals with heavy topics (war, death, torn families and shattered relationships).

Simply, The Book Thief is unique. Readers long past their teen years will enjoy Death’s quirky narrative and the parallels of innocence and grief, luck and fate.

As a final note: The film adaptation is excellent, though it simplifies the relationship between Rudy and his many enemies. It’s definitely worth a watch after a read.

Source:

  • Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013 ISBN 9780385754729

C.J. Box, “Back of Beyond”

Minotaur Books; http://us.macmillan.com/books/9780312365745Cody Hoyt would give anything for a drink. To feel the burn as it slides down his throat, the warmth as it settles into his belly. But one drink would be too much for the damaged cop struggling with two months of sobriety. So he forges ahead to a crime scene, climbing the mountains of Montana while a downpour slows his progress. He steps out of his vehicle, flashlight in hand, to inspect the partially burned cabin where hikers reported seeing a body. And a body there is – Hoyt’s AA sponsor.

Plot Overview: Alcoholism, Family Ties and Murder

Hoyt is an investigator as damaged as they come. He’s been divorced, fired, absent from his son, a functioning (and non-functioning) alcoholic, a screw-up. He’s gone rogue before, and Larry, his new partner in Helena, has warned him not to do so again.

When Hoyt and Larry assess Hank Winters’ death, Hoyt knows with the instinct of a weathered detective that the death was not accidental; Winters was murdered. Emotional and far from objective, Hoyt trips and falls into the bottle again, while Larry doggedly pursues the case from all angles, one of which leads to Yellowstone National Park.

There, a manipulative outfitter, Jed McCarthy, is preparing to take a group of tourists through the country on his “Back of Beyond” horse trip. One member of the group is Hoyt’s son, Justin. Another? The killer.

Hoyt, having been kicked off the force after accidentally-on-purpose shooting the coroner, pursues the killer as a civilian. Little does the city cop realize, however, the magnitude of danger that lies in the wild – not only from animals, but also from man.

Criticisms and Compliments

Generally speaking, readers cannot go wrong by reading Edgar Award-winning writers. Box is such a writer. Sure, the plot of Back of Beyond might border on formulaic (and the story behind Rachel, one of the campers, seems a little far-fetched), but it’s a thrilling read. The characters are well-drawn, and Box flits between Hoyt, Jed and Gracie, a young trip participant as intuitive as she is brave, as each expertly analyzes the company.

The main character in Back of Beyond, however, is nature. Box has a clear understanding of survival and weakness, and pitting man against nature only emphasizes the violence that exists when laws are absent. (Plus, Box’s descriptions of Yellowstone are fascinating, especially for readers not so inclined towards roughin’ it.)

Overall, Back of Beyond is a good, solid read and proves the rule holds: You can’t go wrong with an Edgar Award winner.

Source:

  • Box, C.J. Back of Beyond. Minotaur Books, 2012 ISBN 9780312366124

Sue Grafton, E Is for Evidence

St. Martin’s Paperbacks; http://us.macmillan.com/eisforevidence/suegraftonKinsey Millhone’s problems started with the $5,000. The money wasn’t hers, and though notoriously frugal, she isn’t entirely amoral (though she does enjoy a good B&E). Irritated, she tries to fix the issue, only to find herself thwarted by the holiday season. She shifts her focus to an investigation, but little does the intrepid detective realize that she is soon to be the collateral damage of a family shoving aside the generous spirit of the season for money, murder and revenge.

Plot Overview: Family, Secrets and Exes

At Christmas, Kinsey, the consummate loner, is lonely. Henry, her landlord, and Rosie, the Hungarian proprietor of Kinsey’s favorite bar, are gone for several days, and Kinsey is eager for distraction.

Despite her frustration over the seemingly random deposit, Kinsey agrees to investigate an insurance claim for California Fidelity, which provides the detective her office for the occasional use of her services. The company she’s entrusted to check out, Wood/Warren, happens to belong to the family of one of her high school classmates. Eager to get started – and to dispel some of the holiday loneliness – Kinsey sets about her normal routine of digging into backgrounds, probing secrets and following her instincts.

What happens, however, is something even Kinsey couldn’t predict: she’s framed for the arson, fired from her job and booted out of her office. The worst part of the whole mess? The arrival of her ex-husband, Daniel.

For a detective seriously lacking in holiday cheer, the addition of potential murder and conspiracy charges – and witnessing a bombing – are just extra surprises in her stocking of coal. But Kinsey isn’t one to back down, even if it means wishing a fond farewell to her career.

Criticisms and Compliments

E Is for Evidence, though a good read, deviates from the other books in the series. Kinsey, rather than sifting through the lives and lies of strangers, deals not only with those she knows, but those with whom she has a history: the Wood sisters, her co-workers, her ex-husband. If anything, E Is for Evidence is more of an examination of Kinsey’s backstory, the path between Point A (when her parents were killed and she moved in with her aunt) and Point B (her current life). As is typical, the path is shadowy and clouded with pain, particularly with Kinsey’s relationship with Daniel, who, it turns out, abandoned her for someone else. All in all, it is no mystery (pun not intended) why she prefers her own company.

Grafton also delves deeper into family relationships and bonds, a not uncommon method in her stories. The difference in E Is for Evidence, however, is that those bonds are disturbing. Secrets are one thing; abuse is another.

Like its predecessors, E Is for Evidence captures a solid mystery, but readers should expect to spend time with a Kinsey more depressed and vulnerable than usual.

Source:

  • Grafton, Sue. E Is for Evidence. St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005 ISBN 9780312939038

John Sandford, “Naked Prey”

Berkley; http://www.penguin.com/book/naked-prey-by-john-sandford/9780425195444It all started on a snowy night. He followed Jane Warr to her home in Broderick, Minn., and caught her as she was parking in the garage. Inside, he found Deon Cash. He beat Cash, stripped and bound both man and woman, and drove to a nearly hidden copse of trees. There, he tied the knots, strung the rope, and hung the two, leaving the interracial couple as the victims of a lynching. Or so it seemed.

Plot Overview: Mayhem, Murder and Minnesota

Lucas Davenport is content with marriage and fatherhood, but the excitement of his position with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension only highlights the dull stability of his home life. When he’s dispatched to clean up the lynching in Broderick, Davenport rubs his hands at the challenge. With his loyal number two, Del Capslock, at his side, he makes the journey to the frozen tundra of small-town northern Minnesota in January.

Broderick is just a patch of a place, barely alive, but Capslock and Davenport catch hints of activity. The question they struggle with, however, is how much is coincidence? Could more than one ongoing crime be related? What kind of connection (if there is one) exists between the murders, a nearby kidnapping, the local bodyshop and the comings and goings of a small group of ex-nuns?

Part of the answer lies with one of the toughest Minnesotans around: 12-year-old Letty West. West stumbled upon the bodies when checking on her muskrat traps, and her know-how and know-it-all attitude help Davenport and Capslock puzzle out the town – though their dependence on West does little to keep her safe.

Criticisms and Compliments

Naked Prey, Sandford’s 14th installment in the Lucas Davenport series, has all the hallmarks of a great mystery read: an excellent, Fargo-like setting, memorable characters (Letty West, Ruth, the Singletons), and a plot with enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. Like Harlan Coben, Sandford doles out clues piece by piece, but the explanations of each come chapters later. Example (SPOILER): The reader knows that the nuns are involved in a drug-smuggling business at the Minnesota-Canadian border. It’s not until much later that Sandford reveals the drugs are actually cancer drugs supplied to the elderly and those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. It’s a sneaky technique and an effective one.

Like other series (Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series), there is always an issue with backstory: how much is too much, how little is too little? With Naked Prey, Sandford explains the changes in Davenport and his boss, Rose Marie Roux’s, careers, but there’s no background given on their previous positions. Of course, it also doesn’t really matter; Naked Prey is about Broderick, about Letty, and about Davenport and Capslock doing what they do best: kicking some ass

Naked Prey is a good one. Check it out.

Source:

  • Sandford, John. Naked Prey. Berkley, 2004 ISBN 9780425195444

Anita Shreve, “The Pilot’s Wife”

Cover design, Julia Sedykh; http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/anita-shreve/the-pilots-wife/9780316789080/Kathryn Lyons thought she knew her husband, her marriage, her family. Her relationship with Jack had become stale over the years, and her bond with her daughter had soured as the girl aged into a teen, but they had been happy once. They were a unit. When Jack is killed in an airplane explosion – and all signs point to Kathryn’s pilot husband having committed suicide, taking hundreds with him – Kathryn finds herself asking an inevitable question: Did she ever really know the man she loved the most?

Plot Overview: Secrecy, Identity and Love

When the knocking at the door woke her at 3 a.m., Kathryn knew. Every pilot’s wife knows that moment. The aftermath, however, the pain and grief and struggle to keep the strands of her life from tangling, was what Kathryn couldn’t predict.

Kathryn and 15-year-old Mattie find solace at Kathryn’s mother’s house, but snippets of rumors and media reports filter in. Jack committed suicide. Jack was a murderer who killed 300 people. Jack had secrets. Determined to protect her daughter from the spotlight, Kathryn looks for her own answers.

The widow finds hints of a double life and, reflecting back on the years of benign contentment, red flags of a marriage in trouble. With help from union representative Robert Hart, Kathryn travels from Boston to the rainy streets of London – Jack’s route – to search for answers. And though she unearths the truth, it’s almost too much for her bruised heart to bear.

Criticisms and Compliments

The Pilot’s Wife, like most of Shreve’s novels, tips toward the pensive side of the narrative scale. Shreve’s prose tends to be gentle and informative, and the sea, particularly in this novel, which includes the same remarkable beach house as Fortune’s Rock and Sea Glass, is as much a character as her protagonists.

Although Jack’s manner of death is the catalyst to the story, Kathryn is the stable point around which the plot pivots, the calm within the storm. She is, of course, struggling with grief, but Shreve paints her as a less volatile, passionate character than Mattie or Jack. The problem with Kathryn is when (SPOILER ALERT) she travels to London and confronts the other woman. Despite Muira’s cruelty, especially her blunt descriptions of Jack’s love for her, Kathryn merely absorbs the blow. For a story about betrayal and passion, Kathryn is oddly dispassionate when the truth comes to light.

Still, for fans of Anita Shreve, The Pilot’s Wife is one of her best, and those with a love of the sea will enjoy her work.

Final thought: The Pilot’s Wife was published in 1998; how might readers have perceived Jack’s role in the airplane explosion differently if the book had been published after 9/11?

Source:

  • Anita Shreve, The Pilot’s Wife. Little, Brown and Company, 1998 ISBN 9780316789089

Gwyn Hyman Rubio, “Icy Sparks”

Cover design, Jessica Shatan; http://www.penguin.com/book/icy-sparks-by-gwyn-hyman-rubio/9780142000205Icy Sparks, the 10-year-old girl with the yellow ocher eyes and floss-like hair prone to cursing and croaking, has a problem. When she feels like rubber bands are about to pop her eyes, and her body twitches with the urge to jerk, she escapes to the root cellar to release the quirks. Her control, however, is limited, and when her classmates and teacher react with cruelty and dismay, colorful and sassy Icy retreats to a world of humiliation.

Plot Overview: Ignorance, Humiliation and Friendships

In Act One, Icy struggles to negotiate her goodness and her badness (the uncontrollable cursing, the misinterpretations and exaggerations, the tics and jerks). Her relationship with her peers – with the exception of outsiders Peavy Lawson and Lane Carlson – deteriorates, and her teacher, Mrs. Stilton, revels in demeaning the fiery fourth grader. After one intense outburst, Icy is relegated to the supply closet to study alone. She arranges the closet (and arranges her mind in the process), but when her advocate, the school principal, attempts to rearrange the order, Icy snaps.

Icy soon finds herself in a mental hospital. Although Wilma, a hospital nurse, is as malicious and ugly as Mrs. Stilton and Icy is homesick for her loving Matanni and Patanni, she develops a friendship with staff member Maizy. Despite the traumatizing stay, Icy also puts her problems in perspective; her croaks are minor compared to how the other children in the hospital suffer. Her doctor gives her coping tips, and the older and wiser girl returns home to the mountains of West Kentucky.

As a teenager, Icy lives in isolation. She’s kept in touch with Maizy, and her good friend, morbidly obese Miss Emily, goes to the house every week to teach. The teenager, though, is thirsty for company, for puppy love, but her anxiety keeps her alone and lonely. It’s only when Miss Emily and Matanni drag her to a tent revival that Icy taps into what makes her different – and special.

Criticisms and Compliments

Icy Sparks has one of the most unique, vibrant voices in literature. Her narrative, her use of colloquialisms and her range of emotions breathes life into a story that, from the book jacket, doesn’t sound that appealing. But the tale of a young girl struggling with undiagnosed Tourette Syndrome is fascinating, more so because of the spotlight author Rubio sheds on ignorance and cruelty.

Despite its achievements (Icy is one of the most striking characters in the last several years), some of Rubio’s descriptions are a little too self-indulgent, to the point that the people of Appalachia are caricatures. More importantly, the ending is too pat. Icy, the complex, spirited “frog girl of Icy Creek,” struggles with her pops and croaks, her good side and her mean side, only to find it all cured by Jesus. What? That’s it? She goes to a tent revival, and ta-da, the insecure and isolated girl is saved and accepts herself fully? That’s not enough for a story that weaves Icy’s misery through three acts of nescience. More so, Icy’s diagnosis, her experience at college, surrounded by others around whom she may not be able to control her tics, is glossed over. Only the epilogue touches on Tourette Syndrome and Icy’s musical abilities.

For such a well-written book, and for such a great protagonist, the ending of Icy Sparks is a disappointment, but it is still worth a read.

Source:

  • Rubio, Gwyn Hyman. Icy Sparks. Penguin Books, 2001 ISBN 9780142000205

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

Little, Brown and Company; http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/donna-tartt/the-goldfinch/9780316248679/Funny how one incident, one disaster can irrevocably change a person’s life. For Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker who’s just beginning to push at rules and restrictions, a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother is a distraction from a more pressing issue: a meeting at school and a possible expulsion. That worry, however, becomes a drop in a spectacular flood that soon engulfs the young boy’s life.

Plot Overview: Tragedy, Growth and Fate

Inside the museum, Theo’s mother lovingly examines paintings by Dutch masters, explaining nuances and brushstrokes to her son; she is most captivated by Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” a simple yet telling piece of art. Theo, though, only has eyes for a redheaded girl wandering through the exhibition with an older gentleman. Just as Theo works up the nerve to say hello, the building explodes, destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb.

Theo survives, only to find the gentleman, Welton “Welty” Blackwell, barely alive. The young boy sits with the man until he finally succumbs to his injuries. Before Welty passes, however, he instructs Theo to take “The Goldfinch,” which remains almost untouched. The boy does then makes his escape, the painting rolled into his bag.

Following the attack, Theo is taken in by his friend, Andy’s, family, the Barbours. The Barbours are an odd, upperclass bunch, prone to stiff conversations and even stiffer drinks. Theo, unsettled and traumatized, does his best to ingratiate himself with the family. Just as the grief-stricken boy begins to feel comfortable, Theo’s father, a neglectful alcoholic, reappears.

With Theo in tow, Larry Decker and his girlfriend, Xandra, head to Las Vegas. The couple, more involved with drinking, substance abuse and gambling, leave Theo to care for himself. With the newfound freedom – and no supervision to speak of – Theo and his best friend, Ukrainian transplant Boris, embark on a drug-fueled adventure. Before long, the fun spins out of control, and Theo shortly finds himself lost. With nowhere to go, he returns to New York, to the doorstep of Welty’s business partner, Hobie. There, Theo attempts to mature, but his rootless childhood, his addictions, his unrequited love for the redheaded girl (Pippa, Welty’s niece, who also survived the bombing), but cannot right himself. The only consistent part of his life is “The Goldfinch.”

Criticisms and Compliments

Although Donna Tartt may not be the most prolific writer, what she does produce is captivating – and that’s not a hyperbole. Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch is a stunning examination of tragedy, of the beauty and ugliness that hides in the cracks of a damaged life. Theo, through each phase of his adolescence, absorbs the subtle dynamics of dysfunction, and the experience shapes the malleable teen into an ambiguously moral businessman with a penchant for drugs. Theo’s identity, however, seems solely based on fate: What if his mother hadn’t died? What if he had stayed with the Barbours? What if he hadn’t been shuttled to Las Vegas? What if he had never stolen the painting?

Fiction is based on “what ifs,” and Tartt’s exploration of the coulda, would, shouldas not only adds momentum to the hefty novel (or really, the series of novellas), but also draws a sense of sorrow in the reader. How could Theo, who had such potential, who was so vulnerable, turn out to be such an unhappy, amoral person? It’s perplexing, given that Theo is, generally, likable and deserves sympathy. Then again, by Tartt exposing his every flaw, every addiction and every shady dealing, she creates one of the most human of literary characters. (With that said, Boris and Hobie are also uniquely drawn personalities who add zest to an otherwise melancholy tale.)

What’s noteworthy about The Goldfinch, as well, is even though it’s dense and long (and starts to slow near the end), it is engrossing. Theo, though he (or Tartt) tends to be redundant with metaphors, is a terrific narrator. And, isn’t it the nature of the reader to be curious about a character’s life? Tartt, thankfully, gives the reader the gift of tracing her lovelorn, drug-addled protagonist’s life through childhood, through tragedy and death and crime, until he finally reaches peace.

Source:

  • Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. Little, Brown and Company, 2013 ISBN 9780316055437