Notes from the Book Group on September 23, 2014

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group on Tuesday September 23, 2014

For The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Present: Roo Dane, host, Anne Ipsen, Dorianne Low, Katherine O’Connor, Sydney Owens, Dodie Rees, Cornelia Robart. Welcome to newcomer Wendy Weiss.

This book brought out emotions of dislike and discomfort among readers unaccustomed to celebrating drugs, drunkenness, and adolescent criminals graduating to fraud. The characters were well-described, quite believable, and many scenes were enjoyable because fantastic.

A word about the 500-odd pages: Ms. Tartt is verbose to the point of logorrhea. In describing events and environment this is delightful. In presenting internal dialogue about the Great Thoughts available to downcast men, it is less than successful.

The story begins dramatically (once past one of several meditations). Thirteen-year-old Theo and his artistic mother visit the museum where The Goldfinch, an exquisite painting by a long-dead artist, is on display. During their visit, a bomb explodes in the gift shop, wounding and killing many visitors. Among them is a grandfather who confers Goldfinch painting ripped from its moorings to Theo, along with a ring and an address. His granddaughter Pippa is seriously wounded. Later Theo discovers his mother has also died.

Eventually Theo finds himself befriended by the grandfather’s partner in furniture restoration, Hobie, and boarded by the dysfunctional family of a school friend. Just as Theo begins to feel sheltered, along comes his drunken, delinquent father who removes him to Las Vegas, where Theo meets Boris the Russian/Ukrainian. Here the riotous coming-of-age adventures begin.

The plot is interrupted at will with the departures and arrivals of key characters, most of which are drawn with sure strokes. Pippa, the elusive cripple, is mysteriously attractive to Theo who understands that they are both wounded and can’t help each other. Mrs. Barbour, who revives from the tragic loss of son Andy (and incidentally her manic-depressive husband) when Theo reenters the household. Andy is clumsy, intelligent, rightfully fearful of boats, loyal. Siblings and classmates pass in review, disappear, reappear – all believable even as minor players.

Theo learns about antiques and furniture restoring – and faking – during his time spent with the gentle Hobie. He is almost too good – naïve, trusting, unsuspecting of his almost son Theo as the young man learns to manipulate prices, values, authenticity. Of course he gets into trouble, and several chapters are devoted to his anxiety about discovery.

Meanwhile Theo becomes engaged to Andy’s “vapid” younger sister Kitsey – a nice girl perfectly comfortable with a stereotypical life. Theo seems not to express any affect in his relations (with the exception of his mother, Pippa, and Boris), so is quite acceptable wherever he goes, whether with Russian thugs or Long Island estate owners. I think we readers needed some dialogue here – Theo mostly gets through conversations by staying silent or removing himself from the scene.

Boris to the rescue! He arrives at Theo’s engagement party, spirits him away to Holland, where the twice-stolen Goldfinch may be found. Melodramatic confrontations, gunshots, delirious days alone in a hotel, determination to end it all, end-of-life notes (Kitsey’s being the least important) – and a sack of money from grateful museums for the return of the Goldfinch and some antibiotics clear up everything. Goodbye, Boris, Hello New York. We empathize with the fatherly Hobie, so disappointed with Theo, shrug off the never-ending engagement to Kitsey, wonder vaguely if Boris ends up dead in the street somewhere, overdosed or more likely shot in a deal gone bad, and would willingly read more about him in another story. And when will get to see a good action mystery movie from this book?…

The final meditation on the meaning of life bookends the opening of the story – rambling, unoriginal, yet interesting all the same, Theo does express to the reader a philosophy of art and life that is worth recalling:

“It is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time – so too has love.”


Next meeting is Tuesday, October 28 at 6:30, Roo’s place. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud is the story of a woman living alone, poignant to the point of being sad.