The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not really a very “likeable” book, but it is a very powerful one. Basic plot: boy loses mother, is cast adrift, descends into drug use and alcoholism, makes choices that spiral out of control, and eventually grows up and tries to put things right. One of those choices was stealing a valuable painting from the MOMA during a terrorist bombing that kills his mother. He clings to this painting as a sort of anchor in his life, and it is his undoing, but in the end, it is also his salvation. Tedious in some sections, especially life with his until then absent father in Las Vegas, and his descent into drug abuse with his friend Boris — and Theo is not really a very likeable character himself — nevertheless, it was also mesmerizing. The painting is a character in its own right – perhaps the only character that I actually cared about. The power of this book is in the broader themes that transcend plot and characters: how much do we control our fate? what is the power of art? the nature of authenticity? what happens when we try to follow our heart, but our heart cannot be trusted? Dickensian in scope, there is more than a nod here to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Will all be well in the end? Maybe, and maybe not.

Book Description: Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

Olive Kitteridge

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I rate this on “liking” the book or the characters, it might be 3 stars. If I rate it on how much it will stay with me and I’ll be thinking about Olive and other characters it might be 4 or 5. And if I rate it on literary merit, the use of language and how the stories intertwine to create a whole, maybe 5. So I’ll compromise with 4. Olive is not an easy person to like. Sometimes she has a heart of gold, and is almost painfully empathetic and compassionate. But she has a mean streak and at times a selfishness that will always be her undoing. She is raw, crusty, and as she describes herself, she has the “soul of a peasant.” I think of peasants as being simple in their approach to life. Olive is anything but. You’ll get to know her through her own story, her son, her students, and her neighbors. Each story is complete in itself, but taken all together has a richness that is greater than the individual parts. At the same time, each story will make you think about life, love, security, and isolation, and how we cope with things that seem to be out of our control even if they are of our own making.

Book Description: At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama – desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love. At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life – sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition – its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires. 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner in the Letters, Drama and Music category.

The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This beautifully written book defies classification. Is it the story of an ordinary woman living through extraordinary events, or an extraordinary woman living through ordinary events? Daisy Goodwill reflects on her birth (Manitoba, 1905) and her death (Florida, 199?) and everything in between. Sometimes it is Daisy’s story, then it shifts to the voices of her friends, neighbors, and children, or an omniscient third person. One chapter is told entirely through letters. Like a real biography, there are pictures of the family and a genealogy chart. Despite this touch of “authenticity,” one is left wondering how much of Daisy’s life was imagined or made up. The ultimate question it asks is how do we define ourselves? What is it that gives our lives meaning? Daisy struggles with these questions throughout her life, and I’m not sure she ever finds an answer. She is a strong and independent woman, and yet she is always letting others define her. She tries to be the dutiful wife and the perfect mother ala Good Housekeeping magazine. She is thrown into severe depression when her role as Mrs. Green Thumb (newspaper columnist) comes to an end. And at the end of her life she is defined by her illness. How well do any of us ever really know ourselves or the people closest to us? I know that large parts of my life have felt made up as I’ve gone along!

This book was read for the Daytimer’s book club December 2009 meeting (topic: Award Winners). It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.