Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Goldfinch

Among my reasons for temporarily converting this knitting blog to a book blog was the desire to better remember what I've read. A few months ago, a friend loaned me a novel she thought I'd like, and as I looked at the cover and read the back blurbs, it had a vague familiarity that made me wonder if I'd read it or simply read reviews of it. Coming home, I discovered I already owned it and yes, I had read it a few years ago. To make matters worse, it was a Louise Erdrich novel, which should definitely be in the unforgettable category.

Obviously, my brain was clogged with too many books and I needed to make a personal card catalog, hence this blog.

I predict my latest completed book, The Goldfinch, will require no effort to remember. Theo Decker, a boy who survives an explosion that kills his mother, is a character for the ages, and nearly all of the supporting characters in the novel are just as intriguing and vividly rendered.

This book recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I'll refrain from describing or critiquing it as hundreds of superior reviews are easily accessed with a Google search. Mostly I'd like to record my impressions while they are still fresh.

The adult Theo reflects in the beginning of the story that his life would've been much different if his mother had lived. She is a central presence, or non-presence, in the story, and almost every bad decision the young Theo makes is a direct consequence of not having a mother, or more specifically, a good mother who is alive.

The foster mothers who step in for the teen Theo can't replace the angelic qualities of his dead mother. The wealthy Mrs. Barbour, who first shelters him, may be emotionally distant, but she is kind and has the wherewithal to keep Theo out of too much trouble. However, she doesn't have the legal standing to prevent his derelict father from taking him away.

Xandra, the seedy girlfriend of Theo's father, is on first impression a cartoon wicked stepmother. She redeems herself later in the story, and as we get to know her better, we discover she isn't all bad (no character in the book is all bad or all good, with the exception of Theo's mother, who attains a quality in death that she could not have possibly maintained in life). Still, Xandra fails Theo when he is in her negligent care.

His next foster mother is actually a man -- Hobie, a furniture restorer who agrees to be Theo's guardian. Hobie is decent and kind, but he is ill-equipped for the job of shepherding a teenager, and some of the bad habits Theo picked up with his dad and Xandra continue under the trusting and distracted Hobie.

The three age-peers most central to the story are Pippa, Boris and Andy. Pippa, who also survives the explosion, becomes for Theo the living embodiment of ideal womanhood in that his mother had been. Boris is larger than life, so full of vitality that he can simultaneously serve as Theo's demon and savior. Andy, alive or dead, keeps Theo in the orbit of the Barbours, which at least loosely tethers him to the world of decency his mother would've wanted for him.

I loved all 780 pages of this novel and I already miss spending time each day with Theo and his friends.

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