Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
especially welcome to extensive readers

Monday, September 29, 2014

Acquiring a Tartt taste in reading

Over this past summer, I embarked upon a personal reading challenge(in addition to a few other titles for seasonal reading); to take in all of the novels by Donna Tartt. While it may simple like a simple task,given that's she only written three of them so far, the page turning was not as easy as it would seem.

I decided to start with her first book, The Secret History, a debut that quickly gained must read status amongst literary folk. The story was told through the eyes of Richard, a college freshman at a small yet prestigious university in Vermont who was eager to shuck off his sad sack family and working class roots.

He becomes determined to join a very private class of students allowed to focus on Ancient Greek literature solely, run by oddly mannered professor Julian Morrow.

Upon a tentative admittance to the group, Richard slowly but surely wins them over and soon stumbles upon a dire secret that one member(the obnoxious Bunny Corcoran) is holding over the others in a vicious way, using them as his limitless expense account.

Soon enough, plans are made to deal with Bunny and his out of control antics that threaten to expose them all, with Richard finding himself joining in and becoming just as implicated as they are.

 This is definitely a "don't blink or you'll miss it" kind of story and yet, I found it completely fascinating and hard to put down. The atmosphere of this book put me in mind of Patricia Highsmith, who often set her insidious tales of murder and deception amongst the well to-do, particularly in The Talented Mr. Ripley as Richard's deception regarding his background and actual finances mirror that title character's drive to belong to the upper class by any means necessary, a dark path that Tartt's leading man takes as well:

 Next, I went on to The Little Friend, which came out ten years after Secret History and considered by some to be her sophomore slump. A lot of high expectations were placed on this book and to be fair, it's way trickier that TSH was in terms of story telling.

TLF is set in Mississippi during the 1970s(no specific year but the references make it pretty obvious), where twelve year old Harriet Cleves decides to spend her summer hunting down her brother's killer.

She has no real memories of Robin, who was found hanged in their backyard in 1964, yet her entire family still lives in the shadow of his death. Her parents are separated,with her mother carrying on a careless reclusive lifestyle and her sister Allison a similar dreamy existence. Her great aunts look in on them from time to time but the only steadfast presence in that home is Ida Rhew, the much put upon household maid.

Based on a misunderstanding, Harriet believes that Danny Ratliff, a childhood friend of Robin's who is now a moody adult with a criminal record and trapped in a family of meth dealers, is the killer. Teamed up with her only friend, the giddy Hely Hull, she plots to take revenge on Danny yet her quest goes awry in so many ways.

It's a strange book, to be sure, and far better than many people give it credit for. Tartt's capturing the flavor of Southern Gothic with a tang of coming of age, does make for an entrancing read but if you're expecting a whodunit solution to the mystery of Robin's demise, it's best to keep in mind that TLF is more about the journey than the destination.

 Answers are not really what the characters are seeking,despite their claims to the contrary. Whether they want to admit or not, Harriet and her circle of worn down relations(and unknowing enemies) are trying to figure out if they should continue going through the motions or strike out towards a new way of life. Think of this as To Kill a Mockingbird meets American Horror Story and you'll have the right idea about how to proceed with The Little Friend:

That brought me to The Goldfinch, Tartt's most celebrated and recent novel. The book is still riding the bestsellers lists, partly due to it winning the Pulitzer Prize last year, and has nearly an equal numbers of admirers and detractors.

Our lead here is Theo Decker, who at age 13 had the ill fortune to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother on the day that a bomb went off, destroying lives and works of art in the process.

Theo is not near his mother when the blast occurred and during the haze and confusion, makes a promise to a dying man and brings home the painting of the title, along with a ring that leads him to an unexpected home and haven. During the chaotic times and various places that he finds himself in, Theo's only slim connection to what he lost back then is the painting that he hides and protects, not sure how and when to give it back without facing dire consequences.

You could call this Donna Tartt's David Copperfield, as the many twists and turns of Theo's life echo Dickens in a original way that I sincerely believe the author himself would tip his hat to her for. It does take some time to get through(I did go over my intended summer reading deadline with this one) but the rich descriptions and bizarrely believable characters do support Theo's strange adventures quite well there.

 The Goldfinch does have a personal resonance for me, as my long departed father was a fan of the Dutch Masters style of painting that the title art piece is a part of and in some ways, I wish he was able to read this book. I think he would've liked it enormously and we certainly would have had a great conversation about the mentions of art conservation in the story and which characters we liked best( especially Theo's buddy Boris, my dad would recognize as a few guys he ran into during his younger days).

I can see why some might not take to it, although quite a few of the naysayers may be more motivated by professional jealousy, in my opinion, rather than the quality of the content(you know who you are, I don't have to say).

There are plans to turn The Goldfinch into a film, which would be the first Donna Tartt novel to get the silver screen treatment. I just hope that a good director gets attached to this project, someone with an offbeat vision who is able to provide a panoramic view of the world for all of the major characters to romp in. A Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson type would do justice to such a elaborately wrought yet heartfelt story:

While it did take some time to drink in all of the potent prose wine that Donna Tartt has bottled to date, I do feel the richer in spirit for it. I know there's a lot of talk about what it means to be "well read" these days and it's a good topic worth pursuing,however I think that term needs to be redefined.

Instead of striving to be "well read", we should be aiming for what I call "reasonably read". That means having read enough of what interests you for both educational and entertainment purposes to not only have working knowledge of a genre or subject but to share what you're gained from those books with others. Donna Tartt may appear to be high end but her artistry crosses many literary borderlines and rightly should be read for fun as well as art appreciation.

She's the real deal when it comes to writing and one of the few out there whose next book will be worth the wait and then some. My summer reading was pretty successful on the whole(having completed six out of the seven books that made my list) but the benefits of reading Donna Tartt are far from seasonal and I thank her greatly for sharing her engaging imagination with us all:

No comments: