Monthly Archives: June 2014

On The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is easily one of the best books I’ve read in contemporary fiction…

…and yet I struggled to give it five stars. I will get to the points that gave me pause in a moment, but first for the praise.

The writing in this heavy volume is nothing short of beautiful. As a good friend once said to me, writing is not about stringing words together in a grammatically-correct way. It’s about perception. Tartt’s perception of intense emotional situations, of humankind’s propensity to question its existence, and the internal struggles between our selfish desires and our selfless mandates, is painted in glorious Technicolor. If you are in love with words, you will be overindulged in this text. So many beautiful passages abound.

Characterization in this novel is refreshingly accomplished. While the story isn’t chock-full of what I would deem “likeable” characters, each one is drawn and developed thoroughly. Every big-city stereotype is represented, but given a depth atypical of clichéd personalities. There are no obvious “good” or “bad” guys, but layers of good and bad traits and choices, and the questions they raise, along with the realities they represent, are so much more valuable and interesting to dissect that it is easily forgotten that you don’t really like them in the first place.

This is true with the character of Theo Decker. The reader is so engrossed in Theo’s thought processes, so lost in his life struggles, so filled with hope for him to overcome, that it isn’t until the story is over that the long hours of reflection conclude that he wasn’t really a good or likeable guy. But that wasn’t really the point of the story, to like Theo, or to like anybody else but the main character…which is The Goldfinch.

Goldfinches have been used throughout art history as symbols of freedom and salvation from as far back as the late Middle Ages. These birds are often seen in paintings of Mary and Jesus, with a baby Jesus holding a goldfinch. (Click here for a more thorough study of the symbolic use of goldfinches in art, if you’re interested). I have read that it took Tartt more than a decade to write this book, and so I must assume that everything in it is deliberate: the use of such a symbol, the juxtaposition of the salvation portrayed by the painting and the nihilism espoused by Theo.

It has been said by critics and reviewers that Tartt’s book has a Dickensian feel and also lends itself to the influences of Dostoyevsky. Both of those authors being two of my favorites, I can see their influence on Tartt’s writing, but I submit that if Tartt’s novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ orphan tales, then the main character is, in fact, the painting itself.

Throughout the tale the painting speaks to the characters, affecting them, pleading with them to survive. It is an orphaned painting, fighting for survival through centuries of harrowing violence, and it bewitches everyone who sees it in the story, from Theo’s mom to Hobie, to Theo, to Boris, and onto all it passes through, always on that fragile cusp between preservation and destruction. It is the motivator of the novel. It is what progresses the story and is what causes the greatest amount of anxiety throughout the tale. While the reader hopes for a happy ending for Theo, it hopes it more for The Goldfinch. And if the bird itself is true to its allegorical role, it is the hope of salvation and/or liberation (either in the Biblical sense or not) that every character in this book is trying to preserve.

There is a great amount of dedication to detail of art and furniture restoration in this book, which has been a bane to other readers’ experiences, but I believe it plays into the heart of this story, which is the relationship between mortal man and immortal beauty. It is an almost-parasitic, yet loving, relationship with each needing the other to exist and thrive.

As a philosophical piece of work or an example of masterful prose, the book was outstanding, but I believe that anyone reading this novel purely for entertainment value will be distressed, and maybe even bored. The plot began and ended well, but the middle sagged laboriously, at times. The endless trudging through drug use was a bit tedious after the first few experiences. The employment of Dickens’ favored “happy coincidence” was fine, but did not make for an impressive wrap-up of the storyline, and came off as a bit lazy for an otherwise intelligently-written book.

I am not a personal fan of overt pontificating as a means of ending a story. I am much more of the mind to allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions and make his/her own interpretations with respect to the lessons or morals. So, the last chapter of Theo’s waffling on life and death and beauty and illusion, etc. was a bit annoying for me.

Lastly, a personal pet peeve of mine is when any non-native writer writes about Las Vegas. This isn’t significant enough to take away from my experience with the book, just, like I said, more of a pet peeve as I happen to be a native of Las Vegas. I won’t insert a long list of inaccuracies as I think that would detract from the rest of this review, but this is the only platform I have to air my grievances, so there you go.

At the end of a very long contemplation about this book I decided to rate it a five. The good points were just too damn good not to.

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My stomach just hit the floor…

The other night, I got on a roll. My fingers were zipping across the keyboard, sped by an inspiration that hasn’t been around very much this year. My recent story was plodding for a bit, but something ignited in me over the weekend. I knew EXACTLY where I needed to go, what needed to happen next, and I sat in front of the computer all night, churning out page after page after page of good, inspired storyline. I swear to God that I hit “save” over and over again, as is my habit when I write. I haven’t touched the story since that night. So, imagine my utter gut-wrenching horror when I opened the document to find it all gone. GONE!! What the hell happened? I keep replaying the writing spree in my head, wondering if I had accidentally deleted the text, but how could I do something like that accidentally? I’m no computer whiz, but I ain’t no dummy either.

Oh, man. I still cannot believe it. I am physically ill right now, two extra heartbeats away from a panic attack. I just keep chanting “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right. It wasn’t meant to be. Just rewrite it.” Oh. My. Gawd.

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The Courtesy of a Review

Every writer, and especially an Indie writer, knows the value of reviews. As Indie authors, it is our job to market our work, and one of the best ways is to get our work reviewed. Oftentimes, we trade out free copies in exchange for honest reviews, a win-win. But it wasn’t until I accepted a free copy of a book in exchange for an honest review that I really understood the anxiety on the part of the reviewer. And the reason for that is because I didn’t enjoy the book.

Not only did I not enjoy it, but it was just awash with so many errors and obvious needs of improvement that I seriously wondered how I could review it without dropping a huge sledgehammer on some writer’s dreams. I had never struggled with this before when writing reviews of either Indie authors or large house authors, and it occurred to me just why. When writing an unsolicited review of a book, the author is still somewhat anonymous, disconnected and unconcerned with my opinion (or so I can believe). But when an author seeks me out for a review, there is a bit of a correspondence before I actually receive the book, and in that correspondence the author becomes real to me.

There is a tangible excitement on the other end of my email inbox. I can sense it from the writer. I know she is biting her nails in her anxiety, plodding through each long, laborious day, waiting for me to post my review so she can read how much I loved the fruits of her labors, how much I appreciated the amount of effort and work it took her to write her book, how much I recognized her talent and admired her storytelling brilliance. I know she is waiting just this way. I know it deeply because I have been her.

And what if one of my reviewers had responded just the way I want to and said: This is just not good?

The problem is that I know how that would affect her and I can’t do that to her. I have struggled so much with this that I even discussed it at-length with my husband. I suggested that I should forego writing a review and just write her personally with some helpful tips and constructive criticism, but what is the point? The book is already published and has been for more than a year. Should I offer to be a critical reader or a beta reader for her on future works? How can I be honest without being damaging? How can I be helpful without being patronizing? After all, I may be no better writer than she.

And what if she handles it badly and turns around to write negative reviews of my books? It is a petty fear, I know, but this industry has some petty people in it. There seems to be an unspoken agreement in the Indie world, a sort of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours in effect. I have seen it where Indie authors are reviewing each other’s work and rating each other exactly the same. If one author rates a book four stars, you can be assured that that author will, in turn, rate the other’s four stars. Am I breaking with some code if I rate less than three stars? Am I moving myself toward some black list? Am I overthinking it all?

Back in the olden days when I was in college, I took a course that was entirely devoted to writing reviews. That was all we did all semester long. So, I got fairly good at it and the test then became how to write them funnier, how to make them stand out, and in a lot of ways that meant finding ways to be more insulting. I was inconsiderate of the person(s) I was annihilating with my criticisms back then and I began to wonder if and how I had matured in my reviewing.

I like to think that my reviews now are less insulting and more constructive, but I know that I have written some stuff that has probably offended some authors out there. I realized that there are two sides of a review, an emotional and a mechanical, and it is still, at the end of the day, my opinion. I started wondering if maybe I should endeavor to write each review as though the author personally sought me out, to always be mindful of the author’s feelings and to keep my criticisms as free of emotion as possible, and to keep my emotions as respectful as possible.

And, I decided that I will give each author exactly what I would want from my reviewers: honesty.

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