Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt/Little, Brown and Company
“I’ve made a fortune off it, and I would really like for you to have it all to your own again-you know, the thing itself, for old time’s sake, just to have, to really be yours, keep in your closet or whatever, get out and look at it, like in old days, you know? Because I know how much you loved it. I got to where I loved it myself, actually.”
The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch is full of intricate ties and coincidences, and every event that takes place somehow relates back to one moment, when he was a 13-year-old boy whose mother was killed in a terrorist attack at a New York museum. At the time of the explosion, Theo’s mother was in a separate room from her son, looking at the painting of The Goldfinch by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. After being knocked out for some time, Theo thoughtlessly steals the painting and wanders out of the museum, The Goldfinch under his arm, completely ignored by the police and everyone he passes, until he finally reaches his mother’s apartment. From there, the story continues to go downhill for Theo, as he is taken by his estranged alcoholic father, to a new, seedy home in Las Vegas.
While in Las Vegas, Theo befriends an outsider like himself, the Russian-born and substance-abuse expert, Boris. Boris drags Theo down, and the two find themselves spending their days drinking incessantly and doing whatever drugs they can get their hands on. Meanwhile, the painting, like his mother’s ghost, haunts him at every twist and turn. Finally giving in to his fear of discovery and guilt for his impulsive theft years ago, Theo wraps The Goldfinch heavily in cardboard and rags, deciding never to look at it again, but at the same time keeping it close by.
The painting symbolizes Theo himself: he is chained to his mother’s death as long as this goldfinch is chained to a post. He can’t get rid of this painting, the same way he can’t shake off the memories of his mother and the terrorist attack that has single-handedly destroyed his life. He grasps for solace in dark things, such as drugs and lies, and only searches for the bad within the good he does have. As Boris tells Theo, ten years after the two have left Las Vegas, of their young drinking days, “I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.”
At times Theo is confused by his feelings for Boris, and the relationship borders on something more than their friendship’ They’ve both been through such rough experiences and have no one else to love, and therefore they depend on each other. Boris can hold Theo tightly at night not because he is in love with Theo, but because he loves Theo, as his closest confidante, the one person he can always depend on. But Theo, a born-and-bred New Yorker, can’t handle the careless Las Vegas lifestyle, and after his father dies, he runs away back to New York City, leaving Boris to fend for himself alone.
Years later, Boris comes to New York City to find Theo and admits that he stole The Goldfinch, thinking that Theo would have already discovered the textbook Boris put in its place. But the artwork has been preserved by Theo who has kept is wrapped up tightly and in storage. He is completely shocked when Boris tells him that he switched the painting with a math book and has been using it as a tool in illegal dealings: “I switched it. Yes. It was me. I thought you knew. Look, am sorry… I had it in my locker at school. Joke, you know… I swear, I wasn’t going to keep it.” All those years, Theo had been harboring guilt and fearing the authorities, when he was actually off the hook.
From then on the tone of the book shifts and becomes more fast-paced, as if Tartt finally decides she wants to get to the point and is tired of the story’s drawn-out plot. The audience is swept out of the US and into Amsterdam, where the painting is being held as collateral by drug dealers. During a violent scuffle for the painting, Boris gets shot and Theo saves the life of his boyhood friend by shooting and killing the enemy. The next few chapters becomes a hazy, discontented mess as Theo throws himself into drugs and illness while deciding whether or not to commit suicide because they did not save the goldfinch from the drug dealers, just as Theo cannot save himself.
The Goldfinch is a sad, beautifully written journey of the tormented soul of Theo Decker, a boy who tragically lost his mother and with her, his morals and sense of self. The Goldfinch explores the dark side of a person while perfectly delivering the message that life is only temporary, just like a painting that can slip from one’s grasp so easily.

Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall/House of Anansi Press

“But we were both shaken by what we’d seen. It was as though someone had peeled the mask off certainty and our first-world assumptions about safety. Bombs happened halfway around the globe, not nearby. We were used to abstract faraway injustices and violence. We’d been cushioned our whole lives, and had no idea how to act or what to think when faced with this disaster.

Today that episode felt like ten years ago, not four. I felt so much older, drinking whiskey in the morning so I could sleep. The things I’d seen since then. The gnawing in my bones of a kind of tired I knew wasn’t healthy. But I was so used to it, it didn’t matter anymore.”

Holding Still for as Long as Possible

Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall is a portrait of three people representative of the “Y” generation. These twenty somethings grew up after 9/11 in a society generously prescribing pills to numb the pain and anxiety of living in a culture on steroids. Texting their relationships; dousing their troubles with alcohol; and living in a fog, confused about who they really are, Whittal’s characters tenuously maintain a grip on their daily lives.

Josh is a female-to-male transgender working as a paramedic, and he spends his days and nights becoming more emotionally-distant from the terrible events he sees. He starts to take his emotionally detached feelings into his relationship with Amy, a rich girl who is trying to live a cool bohemian city life with her amateur film-making career. At the same time Josh is becoming distant, Amy is finding being around Josh is annoying her for no apparent reason other than their relationship is starting to become less exciting and more mundane.

Billy (real name: Hilary) gets thrown into the mix when her long-time girlfriend Marie breaks up with her and Billy moves in with Roxy, who is Amy and Josh’s mutual friend. Billy is a has-been child music star who came and went from the spotlight quickly, and blew all her money in the process. Billy tries to make a living by going to college (and constantly skipping classes) and working as a waitress, but her full-blown anxiety doesn’t leave her alone, and her ex-girlfriend is the only one who understands how to deal with Billy and her anxiety issues.

One day Billy runs into Josh and Amy on the street and immediately garners a crush on Josh. She’s too flirtatious and self-absorbed to care enough about Amy’s feelings, and immediately goes for the kill, although she uses self-protecting language at first, such as “Josh, I think you and I are going to know each other for a long time.” Josh and Amy eventually break up, though they remain together in the same apartment, and Josh continues dating Billy, even though Billy is starting to drive him crazy because she won’t fully commit to the relationship. In a turn of events, Amy starts seeing Billy’s ex, Maria, and although Amy acts as though she’s dating Maria because she’s attracted to her, there’s an obvious dig towards Billy for stealing Josh.

The characters in Holding Still for as Long as Possible are the most selfish people in Toronto, possibly the world. They never think about each others feelings, but only how others will react to them. Although Billy is self-absorbed and wallows in her anxiety problems, Josh is the most self-centered and insecure of the group. His skills as a paramedic of being unaffected by other people’s trauma has left him incapable of being expressive outside of the workplace. His impassive personality brought on the majority of difficulties in his and Amy’s romance. At one point she asks him, “You just don’t want me to be happy, do you?”

Josh is so consumed with his own feelings for the two women in his life that he doesn’t even see the problems going on in his coworkers’ lives, such as not knowing fellow paramedic Dave was gay—and even then, Josh turned it into his own problem: “He looked at me, just as close, and all of a sudden I saw that he knew about me.” When Billy and Amy get into an accident with a truck, Josh is furious at Amy for surviving, and although he is upset that Billy may not live, he still manages to spin his emotions so that he’s the victim and Billy’s the bad one: “For some reason, she thinks Billy’s the victim of my uncertainty when it’s the other way around.”

In the end, Billy and Josh deserve each other: they’re both so interested in themselves that they are a reflection of one another, two people Amy never should have had to deal with in the first place. Holding Still for as Long as Possible is a great book: there is a lot of egotism, but it’s all so realistic you’ll find yourself hating and loving the characters as they go about their daily lives and messed-up relationships. The book is honest as it captures the raw emotions of these young people who are just trying to survive the monotonous lives in which they exist. They are all trying to figure out who they want to be, but they don’t have the ability for introspection and deeper thought. Their world of technology and text-messaging, and stuffing real emotions, has left them unable to form bonds with other humans and solve their problems by sharing them face-to-face.

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern/Random House LLC

“The sign says Hall of Mirrors, but when you enter you find it is more than a simple hall. You are met not with floor-length unadorned planes of mirrored glass, as you half expected, but hundreds of mirrors of varying sizes and shapes, each in a different frame.

As you move past one mirror reflecting your boots, the mirror next to it shows only empty spaces and the mirrors on the other side. Your scarf is not present in one mirror and then it returns in the next….

As you walk farther into the room it becomes a field of endless  streetlamps, the stripes repeating in fractal patterns, over and over and over.” –The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a beautifully crafted story over 500 pages long, yet it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The novel is about two lovers bound to each other since childhood.  Unbeknownst to them their destinies are intertwined in a competition where only one can be left standing.

Celia is a young girl when her mother commits suicide and she is brought to her father, the great illusionist Prospero the Enchanter, otherwise known as Hector Bowen. To win a bet  with the man only known throughout the book as Alexander or Mr. A.H, Bowen commits his 6-year-old daughter to participate in a game. Alexander adopts his player, Marco, just three years Celia’s senior, from an orphanage and begins to teach him all he knows about illusions.

When the Night Circus first came to fruition from the great and eccentric mind of Chandresh Christoph Lefevre, Celia and Marco had no idea that they were to be pitted against each other.  But once the event was underway for several years they both realized that they had been set in opposition to each other from the start.  They fall in love anyway and their relationship sets off a domino effect of events resulting most often in the deaths of beloved circus employees.

While Marco, with his magical intelligence, holds the circus together with charms (such as slowing down everyone’s aging so that the circus employees seems to never mature), Celia goes on a mission to end the competition and keep everyone she loves out of harm’s way.

The plot is the strongest part of the book and it will keep the reader flipping the pages. Morgenstern undoubtedly knew exactly how the circus should unfold in her mind, and how the characters’ interactions and discoveries of each other would develop. Another striking aspect of the book is Morgenstern’s brilliant descriptions: each beautiful old home, every musty library, and every inch of the circus is filled with beautiful images, and she makes it easy for one to sink into the setting: “The entire compartment looks like an explosion in a library, piles of books and paper amongst the velvet-covered benches and polished-wood tables. The light dances around the room with the motion of the train, bouncing off the crystal chandeliers.”

The characters are all quirky in their own ways, but while reading the story, I felt like I never got to really know Marco and Celia as well as I would have liked. They’re in love, but you never really see it develop except for the fact that they were smitten the moment they saw each other. But they hardly have interactions in which I felt their love over their lust. The rest of the cast and their reasons for being in The Night Circus, however, are so worth the read.

Before you pick up the other well-known circus-related book Water for Elephants, pick up The Night Circus. The Night Circus is much more fun and has a more developed story and setting, and believe me, by the end of it you’ll be hoping for a movie, and a real Night Circus you can attend.

Review: A Happy Death by Albert Camus

At Claire McKinneyPR, we love books. Many of our daily conversations revolve around not just the books we work with, but those we read on our own time. So we decided to  post reviews, not just of books that are new, but classics and anything we happened to pick up at a local bookstore or library, and fell in love with.  Enjoy!


Camus Book Cover

“And Mersault, in silence, felt in himself  extreme and violent powers to love, to marvel at this life with its countenance of sunlight and tears, this life in its salt and hot stone-it seemed that by caressing this life, all his powers of love and despair would unite. That was his poverty, that was his sole wealth. As if by writing zero, he was starting over but with a consciousness of his powers and a lucid intoxication which urged him on in the face of his fate.”

-A Happy Death, Pg. 83

Senior year of high school my English honors class was required to read The Stranger by Albert Camus. The class was an hour and twenty minutes long and I devoured the book in less than an hour. No one appeared to have finished reading, and we had the entire eighty minutes for the next class to read the book as well, so I started reading it from the beginning. In two days I read The Stranger three times and loved every moment of it, from the character’s bored relationship with his girlfriend, to his indifferent shooting and slaying of a man, to his listless time spent in jail until his own execution.

A Happy Death by Albert Camus has very similar aspects to The Stranger-in fact, the book jacket quotes Time praising the book as its “preamble.” And a preamble it is: the protagonist, Mersault (who has the same name as the main character in The Stranger) murders an older, invalid man named Zagreus, whom Mersault was slowly befriending, and flees the scene. Mersault, like in The Stranger, has a girlfriend he has no real connection with and keeps around just because he’s bored. A Happy Death unfolds the weeks before and after the cold-blooded murder, not unlike Camus’ more famous piece.

Zagreus was introduced to Mersault by Mersault’s lover, Marthe. Although Mersault and Marthe appear to the audience to be in a relationship-they go to the movies, visit Zagreus, who is Marthe’s old friend, and spend quite a bit of time with each other-Camus uses Marthe to further depict Mersault’s inability to have an honest, loving connection with anyone. Calling someone his “lover” rather than his partner or girlfriend creates a distance between Marthe and Mersault because Mersault is a superficial character who is only interested in satisfying himself and making himself happy-which he is finding increasingly difficult to do in the pages of A Happy Death.

A Happy Death is a short novel with so much compressed into its pages, but Camus delivers with a simple and beautiful unraveling of the character’s story.  Like most of Camus’ works, A Happy Death is worth reading, possibly more than The Stranger is; in its pages is sadness, despair, loneliness, unhappiness, and existentialism. You’ll find yourself feeling sympathetic towards Mersault because he is obviously so lost and drowning in his own inability to understand happiness in both staying and going. His random surges of love and passion for life are constantly pulled back by his weighted despair of being.

Reading this book reminded me quite a few times of the novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew, another existential book by German author Thomas Bernhard. One point in the novel Bernhard states that “I am only happy when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to. I am happy only when I am travelling.” This line perfectly fits Mersault’s drive to travel as well, for when he is on the train from Prague he keeps switching his tickets to continue his train ride, never deciding to stop anywhere: “not for a single moment was Mersault bored…He loved these long nights when the train rushed along the gleaming rails, roaring through the village stations (pg. 73)…”

Book rating: 5/5
Similar books: Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard