RSS Feed

Tag Archives: capsule book review

The Spoils of Poynton ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

The Spoils of Poynton cover

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Henry James was an American writer who lived from 1843 to 1916. If he seems more an English writer than American, that’s because he did most of his work while living in England and, late in his life, gave up his American citizenship and became a British subject. He wrote about twenty novels, the most famous of which are The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove, and Portrait of a Lady. He is one of the key figures of nineteenth century literary realism.

The Spoils of Poynton is a short (for Henry James) novel first published in 1897 that touches on the themes of greed, friendship, the nature of love and the strength of familial connections. Mrs. Gereth is a headstrong widow who lives on her estate called Poynton. Poynton is filled with “treasures” (these are the “spoils” of Poynton) that Mrs. Gereth and her late husband collected, including furnishings, tapestries, old china, paintings, object d’arts, etc. According to a silly and unfair English law, all the things in Poynton (including the house and estate) belong (upon the death of Mrs. Gereth’s husband) to her son, Owen. Owen can do as he pleases with his mother. He can put her out of the house of he wants to. He is under no legal obligation to her.

Owen is engaged to be married to one Mona Brigstock, whom Mrs. Gereth, his mother, loathes. Mrs. Gereth can’t stand to see Mona installed in Poynton with all the “things” that she considers her own. She would do almost anything to keep Owen from marrying Mona. This is where Fleda Vetch enters the picture. She is a friend of Mrs. Gereth’s and Mrs. Gereth’s choice for Owen to marry instead of Mona. After Owen and Fleda meet a few times, they admit they have “feelings” for each other. Could it be love?

Mrs. Gereth moves out of Poynton at the prospect of her son’s marriage to Mona and takes up residence in a place called “Ricks.” Ricks is all right in its own way but far inferior to Poynton. To mollify his mother, Owen tells her she may have a few (a dozen or so) of her favorite pieces from Poynton. She surprises everybody by taking literally everything. Owen is outraged and threatens legal action. (Apparently the desire for earthly possessions is more important than the mother-son bond.) Mona tells Owen the marriage is off until the things are returned to Poynton. She wants to marry Owen, it seems, only if Poynton and everything in it are part of the bargain.

Mrs. Gereth’s friend, Fleda Vetch, is faced with a dilemma. She loves Owen and he apparently loves her, but she believes it would be improper for her to take him away from Mona. The only way she will get Owen herself is if Mona chooses to break off with him. Owen believes it his duty to follow through on his marriage to Mona, even though he seems at times to prefer Fleda. Which way will he go? Will Mona tell him she no longer wants to marry him? What will happen to the “spoils” of Poynton?

Somebody once said that Henry James could find more drama in a raised eyebrow than most people could find in an earthquake. The Spoils of Poynton is a simple and engaging story told in Henry James’s inimitable grand literary style. If a thing could be said in five hundred words, he will more than likely use five thousand. Let’s see…how many ways are there to say the same thing?

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Absalom, Absalom ~ A Capsule Book Review

1936 first edition cover

1936 first edition cover

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the best American novelist of the twentieth century, the supreme literary stylist. His works are deep, cerebral, rich and complex. His style is dense, sometimes fragmented, wordy and difficult to read. He has the longest sentences and the longest paragraphs of any other writer. If you are trying to follow the thread of a sentence, you might have to go back and break it down into its many parts to figure out exactly what is being said. If reading a novel by Faulkner is frustrating and tedious at times (a painful slog), you must also know that it is worth the effort or you wouldn’t be doing it.

When I first started reading Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom, I found the first chapter (told in the voice of Miss Rosa Coldfield in 1909 when she is 64 years old) so difficult that I almost gave up. If you are able to make it through the first chapter, however, the following chapters are easier. Not easy, but not quite as difficult. (There’s no linear structure to the novel.)

Absalom, Absalom is the multilayered family saga of the Sutpen and Coldfield families in the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Thomas Sutpen confounds the town of Jefferson, Mississippi—and particularly the Coldfield family—when he comes from nowhere and acquires a huge tract of land, called the Sutpen Hundred (square miles, not acres), and builds an enormous house on the edge of a swamp with the help of his band of wild black men and a French architect, who he more or less treats as a captive.

For years after the house is built, Thomas Sutpen entertains a band of his male friends with wild hunting and drinking parties and wrestling matches, until the day arrives when he decides he wants to acquire respectability in the form of a wife and children. He drives away his male friends and proposes to a town girl named Ellen Coldfield. (Faulkner compares her throughout the novel to a butterfly.)

To the unlikely union between Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield are born Henry and Judith. (Thomas Sutpen also has a half-black daughter named Clytemnestra, or “Clytie,” that he had with a slave woman.) Ellen Coldfield has a sister, Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is twenty-seven years younger than she is (younger than her own children). The first part of the story is being told by the elderly Rosa Coldfield to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was the best friend of Thomas Sutpen. The part that Rosa Coldfield plays in the novel is more of an observer than active participant in what is going on.

When Henry Sutpen is grown (or almost grown), he goes away to college in Oxford, Mississippi. There he meets and becomes good friends with one Charles Bon. Charles is older and more worldly-wise and sophisticated than Henry. (Henry is clearly infatuated with Charles Bon. Faulkner later suggests more than just simple friendship between the two, especially on Henry’s part.) When Henry writes home about Charles Bon, his mother immediately sees Charles as a likely husband for Judith. Charles visits the Sutpen home with Henry on more than one occasion. His interest in Judith seems perfunctory. Will he propose to her or won’t he? We learn later a dark secret about Charles Bon, which I won’t reveal here, and that his association with the Sutpen family is part of an elaborate scheme of revenge. This element of the story drives the narrative for much of the second half of the novel.

The Civil War obtrudes upon the lives of the characters. The three principal male characters (Thomas Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon) all find themselves in battle. (Thomas Sutpen achieves the rank of colonel.) The war, of course, doesn’t turn out the way many Southerners hoped it would or expected it would. (Faulkner points out that the Southern army had the highest mortality rate of any army in history.) The men who survive, defeated not only in war but also in spirit, return home starving and in tatters to discover that everything they loved or cared about has been swept away. It is this defeat that is subtext to everything else.

Absalom, Absalom (the name derives from a character in the Bible) is a dark story, full of revenge, incest (or almost incest), miscegenation, family secrets, hubris, intentions gone awry, class distinction, loss and suffering. There’s no redemption for anybody, no life-affirming conclusion. Nobody writes about these things (or about the South) the way Faulkner does. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

A Journal of the Plague Year ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Journal of the Plague Year cover

A Journal of the Plague Year ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a literary late bloomer. He wrote his three famous novels (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year) after the age of sixty. A Journal of the Plague Year was first published in 1722 and is an account of the London plague epidemic in 1665, when Defoe was only five years old.

A Journal of the Plague Year is fiction but is told in first person, as if the narrator is there at the time of the epidemic. The fictional narrator doesn’t leave London when he has the chance when the plague starts, as many sensible people do, but stays behind. He is spared the infection but witnesses firsthand the horrors of the epidemic and lives to tell about them. Defoe supposedly drew on the journals of his uncle, one Henry Foe, in writing the novel. That is obviously what gives the story its sense of authenticity and immediacy.

People can have the plague and not even know it, so are spreading it to everybody they come into contact with. Is it airborne or does it come about only through contact with an infected person? In 1665, nobody seemed to know for sure. Those who have someplace to go outside the city leave before the epidemic takes hold. It’s mostly the poor people who have to stay behind, so they are the principal victims.

So many people are dying during the height of the epidemic that the niceties of burying the dead in coffins are dispensed with. With a thousand or more people dying a day, “dead-carts” are dispatched to round up the dead and dump them into a huge pit. The only requirement for the pits is that the dead be buried at least six feet deep. As the lucky people who collect the bodies sicken and die themselves, new people have to be found all the time to fill the job. (It sounds even worse than a job as a technical writer for a restaurant chain.)

As with any human tragedy, there are stories of heroism and sacrifice along with the stories of opportunism and charlatanism. Quack doctors prey on the poor and uneducated, selling them fake “medicines” that are supposed to be a surefire remedy against the plague. Houses of the sick are ransacked by thieves. Unscrupulous “nurses” murder the sick people they have been hired to care for. Infected people willingly spread the disease to those they know are uninfected. On the other hand, caring people risk their own lives to stay behind and care for the sick in the “pest houses.” Charities are set up that provide food and necessities to the poor to see them through the epidemic.

There isn’t much plot or story to A Journal of the Plague Year, but that doesn’t mean it’s dull reading. A plague epidemic in a large seventeenth-century city is dramatic enough without much embellishment. Once you get used to the old style of sentence structure, it’s a fascinating reading experience. I bought a paperback of the novel when I was in college for sixty cents (new, not used—so you know how long ago that was). I read a hundred or so pages of the novel back then but for some reason didn’t finish it. That’s why I undertook to read the entire book (a breezy 240 pages) this summer, and I’m glad I did.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

One Hundred Years of Solitude ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

One Hundred Years of Solitude cover

One Hundred Years of Solitude ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was written by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), first published in 1967, and translated to English in 1970. It tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo (the city of mirrors that will reflect the world around it) in search of a better life. Ursula, José Arcadio Buendía’s wife (and first cousin), lives for 130 years and is a dominant character in the life of the family. (Incest is a recurring theme throughout the novel.)

One Hundred Years of Solitude can be read and enjoyed as merely a chronological sequence of events in the lives of the Buendia family, but it helps to know something of the underlying meaning. Gabriel García Márquez uses a fantastic fictional story as an expression of reality, with myth and history overlapping. Myth serves as a vehicle to transmit history to the reader. For example, the characters in the novel experience the Liberal political reformation of their colonial way of life, the arrival of the railway, the Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902), the corporate hegemony of the “banana company,” the cinema, the automobile, and the massacre of striking workers.

The inevitable and inescapable repetition of history is a dominant theme in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Márquez reiterates the metaphor of history as a circular phenomenon through the repetition of names and characteristics belonging to the Buendía family. The characters are controlled by their pasts and the complexity of time. Throughout the novel the characters are visited by ghosts that are symbols of the past and the haunting nature that the past has over their lives.

Another major theme is solitude. Macondo is in the remote jungles of the Colombian rain forest. The solitude of the town is representative of the colonial period in Latin American history, where outposts and colonies were, for the most part, not interconnected. The Buendías, isolated from the rest of the world, grow increasingly solitary and selfish. With every member of the family living only for himself or herself, they become representative of the aristocratic land-owning elite of that period in Latin American history.

Whether you’re interested in the political and historical implications or not, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still a multi-layered and entertaining story with many interesting characters. (Sometimes the names of the characters are difficult for the reader to keep straight because of the repetition of names.) José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Ursula are parents of José Arcadio, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, and Amaranta. Colonel Aureliano Buendía is a warrior and revolutionary leader. He starts thirty-two unsuccessful wars and fathers seventeen sons by seventeen different women. All of the sons have the name Aureliano with their mothers’ last names. He marries Remedios Moscote while she is still a child; she dies soon after the marriage during her first pregnancy.

Rebeca is the orphaned daughter of Ursula’s cousin who comes to live with the Buendías. She carries the bones of her parents in a bag and eats earth and whitewash off the walls. She eventually marries her adoptive brother José Arcadio and lives a life of seclusion after his death.

Arcadio is José Arcadio’s illegitimate son, a schoolteacher who assumes leadership of Macondo after Colonel Aureliano Buendía leaves. When Liberal forces in Macondo fall, he is shot by a Conservative firing squad.

Aureliano José is the illegitimate son of Colonel Aureliano Buendía. He joins his father in several wars but deserts to return home to Macondo because he believes he is in love with his aunt Amaranta. He is eventually shot to death by a Conservative captain midway through the wars.

Santa Sofía de la Piedad is a beautiful virgin girl who marries Arcadia Buendía. After her husband is executed, the Buendías take her in, along with her children.

Remedios the Beauty is Arcadio and Santa Sofía’s first child. She is so beautiful that several men die of love (or lust) for her. She is so naïve that she is perceived as being mentally retarded. Too beautiful and perhaps too wise for the world, she ascends into the sky one afternoon while folding a white sheet.

José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo are twins born to Arcadio and Santa Sofía. José Arcadio Segundo plays a major role in the banana workers’ strike and is the only survivor when the striking workers are massacred. After the massacre, he spends the rest of his days studying the parchments of Melquiades (a history of the family written in Sanskrit, which is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel) and tutoring the younger Aureliano. (The two twins die at the exact same time.) The twin brother, Aureliano Segundo, marries the beautiful and bitter Fernanda del Carpio and takes as his mistress Petra Cotes. After the long rains (four years, eleven months and two days), his fortune dies up. He begins searching for buried treasure, a pursuit that nearly drives him to insanity. He dies of throat cancer.

Renata Remedios, who is called Meme, is the second child and first daughter of Fernanda and Aureliano Segundo. To placate her mother, she learns to play the clavichord as well as a professional performer. When Meme falls in love with a mechanic named Mauricio Babilonia, her mother has him shot as a chicken thief and sends Meme off to a convent, where, a few months later, she gives birth to Mauricio Babilonia’s child. Her mother, Fernanda, takes the baby (Aureliano) and claims he was a foundling who came delivered in a basket to cover up her daughter’s promiscuity.

José Arcadio II (the only possibly gay character in the novel) is raised by Ursula, who wants him to enter the priesthood and become pope. He studies in Rome but doesn’t become pope. He eventually returns to Macondo and discovers buried treasure, which he wastes on lavish parties and escapades with adolescent boys. He plans to set up his nephew, Aureliano Babilonia, in business but is murdered in his bath by the adolescent boys, who ransack his house and steal his gold.

Amaranta Ursula is the third child of Fernanda and Aureliano. She never knows that the Aureliano Babilonia, the child sent to the Buendía home, is her nephew, the illegitimate child of Meme. Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano Babilonia become best friends in childhood and enter into a passionate affair when they are older, in spite of Amaranta Ursula having a husband, Gaston. Amaranta Ursula has a baby by Aureliano, which is born with a pig’s tail, as was prophesied. This baby, which is eaten by ants (also according to the prophesy), is the last of the Buendía line. As the line dies out, the town of Macondo is destroyed in a hurricane.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has become a classic of world literature and is the most famous work by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, who died in April 2014 at the age of 87.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Catch-22 ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Catch-22 cover

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was first published in 1961 and is one of the landmark American novels of the twentieth century, ranking number seven on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in the English language of the twentieth century. It is an irreverent account of one man’s experiences in World War II on the fictional island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy.

John Yossarian is a twenty-eight-year-old American bombardier of Assyrian descent who isn’t a hero or a patriot, but is more of an antihero. He seems not to care much about the war or who wins it. He has flown a certain number of bombing missions over Italy to fight the Germans and he believes he has flown enough. He wants nothing more than to survive the war and to be sent home while he is still alive. Anytime he completes the requisite number of missions, an ass of a superior officer raises the number of missions in an effort to bring glory to himself and to impress his superior officers (possibly have an article about himself in the Saturday Evening Post). Yossarian is told he might be relieved of flying more missions if he makes such a request to a senior officer, but the only trouble is that only crazy people can be relieved of flying more missions and anybody who asks to be relieved isn’t really crazy and so can’t be relieved. This is the “catch-22” in the situation. There are many catch-22s throughout the novel.

The army in Catch-22 resembles more a lunatic asylum than a disciplined fighting force. The officers in charge are vain, pompous, petty, self-serving, insecure, vindictive and jealous. (Just like in the real world, these people exist everywhere.) With such as this in charge, how can you go right?

Catch-22 is filled with satire, irony, paradox and dark humor. Besides the maddeningly memorable officers, there are whores (one of whom tries to kill Yossarian because she believes he is responsible for the death of her boyfriend), an insecure chaplain, a young man who is cut to ribbons by the propeller of a plane when he attempts to touch the bottom in a playful gesture (his severed legs lie on the beach and nobody wants to go near them), a mess officer who corners every market including Egyptian cotton, a patient in the hospital who is so encased in bandages that nobody can be sure if there’s anybody inside or not, and a seductive nurse with whom Yossarian has an affair until she decides he’s not the kind of fellow she should be associating with. A memorable cast of characters that you might meet in your bad dreams. If war is hellish idiocy, the people who conduct the war are worse.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Jude the Obscure ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Jude the Obscure image 1

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

English writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known for a handful of novels including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, and the Mayor of Casterbridge. His novel Jude the Obscure was released in book form in 1895 after appearing in serialized form in a magazine.

Jude the Obscure is a fascinating study of class distinction, conscience, and morality in the Victorian era. Young Jude Fawley is a country lad without family or connections, raised by an elderly aunt who cares little for him. He longs to become an educated man, or even a minister, but, because of who he is and where he lives, he has little chance of ever being more than a stonemason, a trade he has chosen to provide enough money to support himself. He views the college town of Christminster (Oxford), twenty miles away, as a center of learning and all that is fine in life. Jude’s old schoolmaster, Richard Philottson, whom he admires and looks up to, has gone to Christminster. (Mr. Philottson will play a significant role in Jude’s future life, and not in a good way, either.)

While Jude is saving his money to eventually go to Christminster and enroll in school, his way is made more difficult by one Arabella Donn, an unrefined country girl who, because she is has nothing else to do, “sets her cap” for Jude. (He would have been better off if he had never met her.) After he is “intimate” with her, she tells him she is going to have his baby, so he marries her, to discover sometime later that there is no baby; the pregnancy was just a ruse to trap him into marriage.

The marriage is an unhappy one, so Jude and Arabella eventually go their separate ways, although they remain married. When Arabella immigrates to Australia with her family, Jude believes (wrongly, as it turns out) that he has seen the last of her. He eventually makes his way to Christminster, several years later than he intended, and finds that the doors to higher learning are mostly closed to him. He is advised to stick to his trade and not try to rise above his station. (Thanks for the encouragement!)

While in Christminster, Jude finds his old schoolmaster, Mr. Philottson (who doesn’t remember him from all the boys he taught), but, more importantly, he finds his cousin Sue Bridehead and is instantly drawn to her in a way he knows he shouldn’t be. Sue is attractive but, we discover later, emotionally unstable and volatile, with an overly developed sense of right and wrong in the world.

Jude falls in love with Sue Bridehead, in spite of his better judgment. Sue also loves Jude in her strange, on-again, off-again way. Mr. Philottson aids Sue in finding a teaching position and becomes romantically interested in her himself, even though he is eighteen years older than she is. Jude and Mr. Philottson, in effect, become rivals for Sue.

Jude wants to marry Sue (even though they are first cousins) but can’t because he is still married to Arabella, who he believes he will never see again because she has gone to Australia. Sue would marry Jude, but, when he tells her in a moment of candor that he is already married, her sense of morality is outraged and she agrees to marry Mr. Philottson instead, even though she finds him physically repugnant.

As expected, Sue and Mr. Philottson’s marriage is not a happy one. Mr. Philottson knows that Sue really loves Jude, so he agrees to magnanimously “release” her from her marriage vows and grants her a divorce. This act will essentially ruin his teaching career and his standing in the community.

In the meantime, Arabella has turned up again unexpectedly in England. She seeks Jude out and asks him for a divorce because there is someone else she wants to marry. Jude will finally be free, he believes, to marry his one true love, Sue Bridehead.

But, wait a minute! There’s something else. In the final stages of her marriage to Jude, Arabella became pregnant, which she didn’t know about until she had left for Australia. She brings the child back to England and expects Jude to take him off her hands because, she says, he is the boy’s father.

Jude takes the boy (who is called Father Time because he seems old beyond his years), believing that he and Sue will get married and raise the boy as their own. This would have been a happy conclusion to the novel, but, of course, it wasn’t meant to be.

Jude and Sue are both free of their original marriages and are free to marry again, but Sue prevents it. She views marriage as a trap and believes that marriage between her and Jude will spoil their love. They live together as man and wife, giving the outward appearance they are married when in fact they are not. (We know this kind of arrangement will not go over well in Victorian England.) When they are discovered to be “living in sin,” Jude has trouble finding work or a place for them to stay.

They eventually have two children (with a third on the way) that are “bastards” in the eyes of the world. When tragedy strikes the children, Sue believes that she and Jude are “cursed” because of the way they chose to live. She believes the only way she will ever be redeemed in the eyes of God and society is for her to return to her original husband, Richard Philottson (even though her heart tells her otherwise), and for Jude to return to his first wife, Arabella.

Jude Fawley is a flawed, tragic character in that he is never able to find true happiness or fulfillment of his dreams. He is undone, not by one woman, but by two. He is a victim of his own weakness and humanness. He dies believing he should never have been born in the first place.

Sue Bridehead is too flighty and “moral” for this world. She seems uncertain of what she wants out of life. She prates on and on about doing one thing and another, only to end doing nothing. (She doesn’t seem to know how to help herself or anyone around her.) She wants to be Jude’s wife and then she decides against it. She wants to marry Richard Philottson and then she wants out of the marriage, only to return to him in the end. She’s a dizzy dame that any man with any sense should stay away from. (She says toward the end of the book that her attractiveness to men has been her undoing in life.)

The only character who seems to find happiness is the amoral Arabella, who uses people to suit her purposes. She’s the only person who seems unscathed by the tragic events that take place. At the end of the novel, she’s flirting with a doctor. We get the impression that she will be all right no matter what and will not be bothered too much by anything that happens.

Jude the Obscure is highly readable classic of English literature, a nearly perfect novel with plenty of heartbreak. At 320 pages, it moves along at a fairly fast clip. Of course, it contains some language and syntax that seem archaic to us today, but that’s to be expected for the time in which it was written. Reading it does not require a tremendous expenditure of time and effort. A lot of writers of Thomas Hardy’s time said a lot less in a lot more pages.

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp 

The Goldfinch ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

The Goldfinch cover

The Goldfinch ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction book this year. It’s a contemporary American story with a Dutch painting from the seventeenth century at its core and a central character, one Theodore Decker, for whom chance or fate or luck—whatever you choose to call it—plays a significant role.

Theodore, or “Theo” as he is called, is twelve years old when the story begins. He is with his mother at a New York City art museum (his parents are divorced and his father has long since departed) when a terrorist’s bomb kills his mother and several other people and destroys a large part of the museum. Theo, through circumstance (chance?), narrowly escapes being killed himself.

Right before the blast, Theo’s mother goes off alone to look at something in another part of the museum. Theo is compelled to stay behind because he is intrigued by a young girl with red hair with an old man, possibly her grandfather. (When the blast occurs, Theo doesn’t know right away that his mother is killed but thinks she will have gotten out safely and will wait for him at home.) Theo goes to the aid of the old man and the girl with red hair (the man dies but not before giving Theo a ring he is wearing; the girl is badly injured). This chance meeting (chance again) significantly alters Theo’s future.

In the after-explosion confusion, Theo finds his way out of the wrecked museum alone and is largely ignored by the rescue people. Before he leaves, however, he sees a small, priceless painting, The Goldfinch (that he and his mother had been looking at a short time before), hanging out of its frame. He slips the painting into the school bag he is carrying, in effect stealing it. He doesn’t know why he takes the painting or what he plans to do with it. (Chance makes the thief.)

The Goldfinch is an actual painting by gifted Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, who was a student of Rembrandt’s. Fabritius was killed at age 32 in 1654 when a gunpowder storehouse exploded in Delft, destroying one-quarter of that city. All but a dozen or so of the paintings of Fabritius were destroyed. (These two violent explosions, one real and the other fictional, bookend the painting.)

Finding himself without family or anyone to care for him, Theo remembers a school friend, one Andy Barbour, that he at one time felt close to. The Barbours are a snooty, upper-crust Park Avenue family, but they (rather reluctantly) take Theo in—for the time being, anyway—because he has no place else to go. He shares a room with his old friend Andy Barbour and tries to resume his life the best he can, living without his mother with a strange family. While he is living with the Barbours, he allows the ring that the old man at the museum gave to him to lead him to the home, in another part of the city, of one James Hobart (or “Hobie,” as he is known). Hobie is the partner in the antiques business of the old man killed in the museum blast. He is kind to Theo and begins to introduce him to the antiques business, specifically furniture restoration.

Through Hobie, Theo becomes acquainted with the red-haired girl who made such an impression on him the day of the museum bombing. Her name is Pippa and, when Theo discovers her, she is recovering from her injuries, as is he (his more emotional than physical). Over the years, his obsession for Pippa grows, even though their lives take divergent paths.

When Theo’s good-for-nothing father, Larry, reappears to assume his parental duties, he has a creepy girlfriend in tow named Xandra. (It seems that Larry is interested, above all, in how he might benefit from his late wife’s estate.) Larry and Xandra take Theo out of the Barbours’ home to live with them in Las Vegas.

Theo’s life takes a decided turn for the worse in Las Vegas. His father is volatile and unreliable; Xandra a self-obsessed bitch who is in no way a mother figure. Theo befriends a Russian boy his own age, Boris, who is, at best, a terrible influence on him. Boris leads Theo down a path of illegal drug use, shoplifting, binge drinking, and other disgusting activities that teenagers without parental authority are sometimes left to engage in.

Theo’s father eventually meets his sad end (we saw it coming), causing Theo to take the wrapped-like-a-mummy The Goldfinch (which he has kept hidden in his room all this time) and take a bus to New York City, with Xandra’s tiny dog, Popper.(It seems that Xandra isn’t even responsible enough to care for a small dog.) He ends up at the home/business of Hobie, who was so kind to him when he was younger. Not having anyplace else to go, he lives in a room at Hobie’s house and learns the front end of the antiques business, while Hobie works with the behind-the-scenes restoration.

In a short time, Theo turns the antiques business into a success but not without some shady business dealings on his part that Hobie doesn’t know about. Outwardly he shows all the signs of success (expensive suits, hobnobbing with wealthy antiques patrons), but inwardly he is never really happy (his philosophy of life being that it’s better never to have been born). He begins using drugs heavily and becomes engaged to a frosty society bitch named Kitsey Barbour (even though he secretly pines for Pippa), who just happens to be the daughter of the family who took him in after his mother died.

During these years of growing into young adulthood, Theo believes he has The Goldfinch with him, although he never takes it out anymore and looks at it. He puts the painting, or what he believes is the painting, in a storage locker for the safekeeping of art objects. Hearing of other cases where art thieves receive stiff prison sentences, he is naturally afraid of what will happen to him if it is discovered he has the lost painting. He isn’t even able to explain why he took it in the first place. He would never be able to sell it or own it in the usual sense.

When Theo’s friend Boris from his Las Vegas days shows up in New York (he hadn’t heard from Boris since he left), Boris tells him, much to his surprise, that he (Boris) “stole” the painting from him when they were still high school students in Las Vegas. The wrapped-up article that Theo believes is the painting is, in reality, an old civics book. (“I thought you knew,” says Boris.) It seems that gangsters and high-level drug dealers use stolen art as “collateral” to get financial backing for their enterprises. In trying to recover the painting, Theo is drawn into the shadowy world of art theft.

The problem with the painting (what to do with it, how to turn it in to authorities without winding up in jail, etc.) is eventually resolved for Theo, after many twists and turns and a near-suicidal trip to Amsterdam at Christmas. Boris is such bad news for Theo most of the time but more often than not turns out to be his salvation. He (Boris) is a kind of tarnished, bad angel, who goes recklessly through life in his own way, ignoring all the rules that “good” people follow.

The Goldfinch is an interesting—if overly long—reading experience. It is so long, in fact (771 pages), and reading it requires so much time and effort that the less dedicated reader might give up before he/she begins. That’s not to say that it’s a boring book or that it’s not written in an easy, readable style. It is compulsively readable most of the time and only in the last couple of hundred pages did my interest begin to flag. (The eighty or so pages in Amsterdam seem to be overly drawn out.) When I was wanting the book to finally end, it seemed to me to go on and on and on. It’s a book, though, that if you do undertake to read it, you will feel at the end that you are better and smarter for having done so.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp  

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 230 other followers