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Well, here we go again. Another week and I haven't finished The Goldfinch. My inability to push through the last third of the book is getting to be nearly as epic as the 771-page novel itself.

There is something in the construction of the narrative itself and my reaction to it that has led to the situation. At first, I was meandering through the book. Donna Tartt takes years to write a novel. Why should I rush through something that took roughly 10 years to write? After so many years following the publication of The Secret History with nothing new, I wasn't sure if there was even ever going to be another novel. So I didn't want to hurry.

The Goldfinch shows the effort put into creating it. There's a lot going on, both above and below the surface. A boy stops in the Met with his beloved mother while they are en route to a talk in the principal's office for a minor infraction he was mixed up in at a private school. Terrorists bomb the building, his mother is killed in the blast and Theo, the boy, finds himself with a dying old man whose beautiful young companion attracted his attention. Theo ends up with a small priceless painting, The Goldfinch, a real painting that survived an explosion soon after its creation by Dutch painter Fabritius in 1654, an explosion that took the painter's life and many of his works.

The book is connected to the painting in more ways than the coincidence of young Theo ending up with the painitng, the explosion and the death of those responsible for birthing Theo and the painting. It was apparent to me from early on that Theo wanted to hold on to the painting because he connected it with his mother's death. The little paintng of the little goldfinch chained to its perch is a physical talisman that is anchored to the last place Theo was with his mother.

But I've spent time in between bouts of reading wondering what other connections the painting -- the art -- has to Theo's story. Is Theo the goldfinch, tied to the trauma of his mother's death? The aftermath of the explosion sets of a series of Theo bouncing from place to place, not at home where he is sent and tied to the restrictions of the system that oversees minors. Is he the goldfinch because he is tied emotionally to losing his parent?

Or, is his beloved mother the goldfinch, tied first to a marriage with someone who refused to be tied down and then tied down herself by having to raise a child alone? Although it's apparent from Theo's point of view that his mother loved him, there are parts of her life that he doesn't know much about, her friends who shared her love of art.

Or, is the goldfinch Pippa, the girl who drew his attention at the Met before the explosion and whose love he seeks for years? Pippa is in the same type of custody situation that Theo eventually finds himself in -- not in a traditional setting but with those closest to her who take her in. She is very badly hurt in the explosion and takes a long time to heal, giving the impression when first encountered that she is fragile, like a little bird.

These feel like superficial connections, even if I enjoy thinking about them. The sense of a deeper connection came when I noticed that light plays a huge role in how Theo views the world. The painting itself is nearly a source of light to him and appears in photographs to be quite bright.

Theo first spends months with the nearest thing he has to a friend, a hapless genius named Andy, and his large, rich family. The mother of the family, Mrs. Barbour, comes across as reserved, competent and well-meaning, but remote. Theo is definitely a charity case. His father resurfaces and, with his gum-chopping girlfriend, whisks Theo to Los Vegas. And not just Vegas. The Vegas of the suburbs, where building new homes was so swift that infrastructure could not keep up. Theo might as well be living in the middle of nowhere as part of an actual city.

The nihilistic emptiness of his barely furnished home, where adults are rarely seen, his school, where learning is centered not on the curriculum but with drugs, and his one friend, an Artful Dodger who is raising himself, could have been completely bleak. But Theo hid the painting and brought it with him. There is brightness, not only in the unrelenting desert sunshine, but in the joy of bonding with his friend Boris, another teenage boy who is raising himself. And both of the boys love a dog, which technically belongs to Theo's father's girlfriend but which has bonded with the boys who care for him.

There comes a reason in the plot when Theo decides he must return to New York City. He shows great pluck, determination and resourcefulness to get back to a place where I thought he should have been all along. But instead of this being where the book picks up even more, this is where the novel started to bog down for me. And, at the same time, the brightness disappeared. Theo's world became so dark that a short passage where it seemed to light up again stood out in sharp relief.

Theo has reconnected with the Barbours. Mrs. Barbour has become a recluse, but she is so delighted to see a grown Theo that one wonder where this warmth was when he was a hurting child. The sun has come out when Theo sets out for the Barbours. He has taken a gift for Mrs. Barbour, an exhibition catalog. Mrs. Barbour makes a callous remark about one of her children, who has died, and then spends more time on the details of Rembrandt's art as Saint Peter turns little children away from Christ than she does on her dead child. Whoa, talk about unmotherly feeling, and with a photograph in the room that foretells her child's death in a neat bit of symbolism that hits Theo. And yet this woman is the one who has become a motherly figure to Theo. There is light in the passages where she appears, even self-confined to her bedroom.

And that light ties her to Theo's own mother and to the painting. Mrs. Barbour has become a motherly figure to him. Does it have to do with his continued trauma from the old tragedy or is it part of his trying to reconnect with the world?

Yet, fascinating as this is to me, it's not what many readers would consider the point because it's not the story, it's not the plot.

That's when I realized why it's taking so long to finish the novel. I'm more interested in these things than in the actual plot at a point in the book when the plot should be completely taking over as it heads toward its climax. No wonder I haven't finished the book. If I cared what was going to happen, I would have finished by now. Sometimes, plot matters.

This isn't to say I'm having a poor reading experience. There are characters and settings here that will stay with me forever. The prose itself is beautiful. But for someone who has championed character-driven fiction for years, it's a surprise to find out what happens when the plot becomes completely beside the point to me as a reader. When I say I wonder what happens next, it's not wondering about the story, not even wondering how Theo got to the point where the novel begins and which hasn't been reached yet.

Instead, I wonder what I'll be thinking about when I next pick the book up again and how all this wondering about light and a painting will play into the rest of the novel.

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Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
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