My top read this past year was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. A 13-year-old boy in Manhattan survives a terrorist bomb in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mother is killed. They had been visiting her favorite painting, a goldfinch chained to a perch, by Carel Fabritius in 1654 . Just before the blast, Theo had fallen for a red-headed girl his age, visiting the museum with an old man. In the chaos that follows the blast, the old man reaches up to give Theo an antique ring and points in the direction of the painting. Theo, in a state of confusion and panic, steals the painting. The book unfolds from that dramatic turning point.
Art critics note the painting was a link between Rembrandt and Vermeer. The boy is similarly arrested between polarities. He is taken in by the wealthy Park Avenue family of a classmate. But, pursuing the mystery of the ring, Theo spends increasing amounts of time with an antique dealer in the Village. Scared and intent on hiding the priceless painting he has stolen, he moves from innocence to wiliness and back again. As he grows up, he traverses the art world, the antique world, criminal enterprise, the crassness of Las Vegas to the byways of Dickens. The Goldfinch is rich with art and culture, suspense and danger; Tartt “paints” beautifully, lacing her story with art history, but the novel is also action-packed. Most of the time you can’t put down this Pulitzer Prize best-seller.
Another treat this year is Someone by Alice McDermott. The story of an Irish-American household in Brooklyn, Someone is a dying Marie, looking back on six-year-old Marie as she tries to figure out the rules of life, her parents’ relationships with each other and other family members. As a teen she observes her priest brother’s struggles with his calling and his emotional turmoil, the sometimes cruel kids on the streets, the rights and wrongs for adolescents back in the day, the rights and wrongs according to the Catholic church, and all the imperatives of their daily activities and interactions. Through the (impaired) eyes of Marie, McDermott captures the sights, smells, and emotions evoked from great events of life and death, marriage and birth, illness and alcoholism, to the little daily activities of laundry flapping in the breeze, bread baking, and getting the children off to school. Catholicism permeates the book, and its place in literature and faith has been written about by M.J. Doherty PhD of Regis College. But it’s really McDermott’s portrayal of those quotidian events, the intimacies of daily life, the lives of ordinary people that give Someone its universal appeal.
Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a gift of a book, the critically acclaimed story of Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as kids in Nigeria, go their separate ways in the U.K. and U.S. and who, finally……well, I won’t spoil it. Racial and gender issues figure prominently against the backdrop of globalization, but their personal stories, separately and together, are always the driving theme. A review in The Guardian notes that “Americanah is a deeply felt book, written with equal parts lyricism and erudition. More than that, it is an important book – and yet one that never lets its importance weigh down the need to tell a truly gripping human story.”
Another good read is The Luminaries, a Booker-award winner by Eleanor Catton. Set in New Zealand gold mining in 1866, the novel is about a prospector whose stay at a hotel enables him to overhear a group of characters involved in a series of assorted crimes, including murder. Each of the 12 characters is associated with a zodiac sign, not particularly fathomable to me. The group itself is trying to sort out the story, which is often challenging. The Luminaries reminds me both of Dickens and Conrad. It’s not easy going, but it is compelling.
Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is Crimes of Fashion by local reporter Jonathan Soroff. Definitely beach reading. Jonathan writes for The Improper Bostonian, does wonderful interviews and has an eye and ear for the personal characteristics of celebrities and social “types.” His novel is about three women in Manhattan who get into the fashion business by exploiting the design talent of a maid, an illegal immigrant from Central America powerless to defend herself because she fears deportation. The names of all the characters are right out of drawing room comedy. The women are snobby, vicious, and catty, and the book is hilarious, often laugh-out-loud funny. One is left wondering if it would seem so funny if the story were set in Boston, and Jonathan’s local readers were left to figure out if it were they whose foibles he is mocking.
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