Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Goldfinch. Book Review

Are we tethered to something that restricts, redirects, skews or retards our progress? And is it possible that the things we think we are tethered to, are illusions, and we can easily snip the ties that seem to bind?

The Goldfinch is a long book.  Nearly 800 pages and I think two or three hundred could have been edited out and the book would have been stronger because of the revision.  Still, it is a good book and one that is likely to remain in my head for a long while, if not for as long as I have left.

A boy, Theo, has behaved badly and needs to see the principal in school with his mother.  The two travel to the school meeting together but are very early so they decide to stop in a museum. While there they observe a painting, the Goldfinch, in which the bird seems to be chained to a perch.  The mother tells the son about the history of the painting.  Shortly thereafter there is a 9-11 type attack in the museum. The mother dies, the boy regains consciousness. Before he escapes another patron who is dying in the rubble hands Theo two items. One of these is the painting, the Goldfinch.

What happens to the painting and the boy is at the heart of the plot.  At one point what comes as a huge surprise to the then young man Theo, is no surprise to the reader.  We are not always tethered to what we think inhibits us.  And sometimes, an apparent obstacle can turn out to be actually a catalyst for positive change.

I had to read Great Expectations in Junior High School. Then as a high school English teacher I had to teach the novel. So, I may be more familiar with the book than most, but some of the characters in the Goldfinch are right out of Great Expectations even though this is set in contemporary times.  Hobie made me think of Joe Gargery, and there is even a character whose name is Pippa.  I had trouble believing Boris, who is so central to the story.  Born in the Ukraine but living in the United States since he was a teen, Boris still speaks broken English as a thirty year old. Also, Boris's ability to extricate himself from situations is out of a Super hero comic book.  Boris does a lot of drugs as does Theo.  I never was a druggie and perhaps I am not with it,  but I found this aspect either unrealistic or an indication of how far out of the loop I have become..  Perhaps the drugs were meant to suggest how we all employ some 'drug" to navigate the terrain made bumpy by events and losses.

In short, the book is too long.  That written, if you are a reader I would recommend it.  It is well written and the message is strong.  I remember once being nervous about a seminar I was scheduled to lead.  I had all my materials locked in an office and could not find the key.  I was panicking with fifteen minutes to go before having to greet the high paid and paying executives who had signed up for the session.  I called custodians, a locksmith, and security and nobody could get me in. Finally, I tried a key I had on my chain and discovered that it worked.  I thought there was a metaphor there.  We often think we are stifled when we possess the very tools that allow for liberation.  The message in this book is similar. The goldfinch was tethered, but we may not be.

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