Morphine Lollipop and the End of the World

short review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Now that the movie is a flop I might as well publish this overly detailed review of the book I did some time ago.

Tartt’s novel begins with Theodore Decker, a thirteen year old New Yorker, visiting a downtown museum with this mother. Lingering on the first floor alone Theo meets an enchanting girl just moments before a terrorist attack takes the life of his mother is killed in a terrorist attack. When Theo wakes up he is in shock, lying in the dusty ruins of the museum with a dying old man who turns out to be the girl’s guardian. The man gives him an old ring and tells him to take it to an address on the Lower East Side, and shortly afterwards dies. Still in shock, Theo rescues his mother’s favorite painting, Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, stashing it in his backpack and beginning a lifelong attachment to great art.

Later, when he finds the address the old man gave him, Theo meets the man’s partner, Hobie, who befriends Theo and treats him as an equal in mourning for a lost loved one. Unexpectedly Theo is reunited with the museum girl, Pippa, whom he met but didn’t speak to at the museum on that fatal day. The story takes on an aura of love mysticism from this point, and one day in the hospital Pippa kisses him after sucking on a morphine lollipop, literally making herself intoxicating to him. Tartt’s Theo attempts to reconstruct the presence of his lost mother in various ways—both Pippa and the Fabritius painting are his connection to a maternal “absence” he can’t quite fill up.

A fatal family greed tears the two apart, even though they are so naturally drawn to one another, and we get to a major shift that is one of the few inconsistencies of the book: although Theo is clearly in love with Pippa, he seems to utterly forget about her after she departs for Texas to live with her aunt and he is taken to live in Las Vegas with his estranged father. There is no further recollection of Pippa for the next hundred or so pages, and we are left to assume that Theo has either become very unsentimental or he copes with the loss of Pippa so well because he has already overcome the loss of his mother(?). When Theo meets his best friend, Boris, a Polish-Ukrainian émigré whose father is a cosmopolitan miner, the atmosphere of the novel abruptly shifts to the other side of American culture. As the boys soon discover, the subdivision they live in is a deserted suburban wasteland on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and their shared sense of abandonment seems to weld them together for life. It is in this section that we encounter some really brilliant, unusual dialogue that makes it easy to discern that Tartt, author of another adolescent-focused novel, The Secret History, enjoyed writing this part the most.

It would be unfair to compare Tartt’s novel to Extremely Loud and Very Close, and even though the plot of the marginally upper class young New Yorker who must overcome the loss of a parent due to terrorism by discovering his roots is far too similar, I wish to avoid insulting her work. It’s not a question of Tartt’s book being superior (even though it is), the trauma narrative is not a mystery to be “solved”, but a beginning that takes Theo out of the city and puts him in the middle of the Nevada desert in his father’s enormous, vacant home. There he meets his best friend, Boris, and his life truly begins.

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. Tartt’s style is atmospheric but leaves hollow spaces in you after you read it, places that you really want to be filled up with pieces of Theo’s life. The novel is not entirely without problems though, I think. At the end, when Boris sees to it that the painting is returned and earns the reward from the museum for leading to the location of the painting, returning to Theo in his Amsterdam hotel room on Christmas morning, it is not clear why. Boris explains that he has discovered something about fate and the mystery of unintended consequences, but then….[spoiler]? The problem is that although Boris is likable in many ways, he sometimes seems a bit too one-dimensional and all too often the stereotypical Slavic émigré. It also seems implausible that Theo hasn’t opened the painting since he left Las Vegas, and hasn’t discovered Boris’s hated Civics textbook in lieu of the painting.

Despite these minor problems, the book is a page-turner that brilliantly evokes the wonder and amazement of youth, a novel that eschews experimentalism in favor of in-in-the-gut storytelling. It is most definitely worth reading at least once.

Four ★s

As near as I can recall this was written in a blur shortly after I read the book, in 2014.

Tokyo Family (2013)

– review of the film Tokyo Family (2013)
Tokyo Family (東京家族) is without a doubt one of the best Japanese movies I’ve seen in the last few months. The film is director Yamada Yoji’s (山田洋次) re-telling of and tribute to an earlier world cinema masterpiece, Yasujirō Ozu’s (小津安二郎) 1953 classic Tokyo Story (東京物語). Like it’s predecessor, it is the story that makes this such an incredible film. Hirayama, a retired school teacher and his playful but proper Japanese wife, Tomiko, visit their adult children in Tokyo. The couple first visit their eldest son, Koichi, at his clinic in suburban Tokyo. As a doctor he has to go on house-calls and spends very little time with his parents, and after an aborted trip to Yokohama, Hirayama and Tomiko go to visit their daughter, Shigeko, who is busy running a thriving beauty salon in the city. Meanwhile, Shuji, the youngest son, drives around in his beat up old Fiat doing odd jobs and freelancing.

Since they are very busy, Shigeko and Koichi agree to pitch in and send their parents to a fancy hotel in Yokohama for a few days. This turns out to be quite dull and the couple return a day early, only to be turned out by their daughter who is hosting a civic party of some kind. It’s at this point that Hirayama and Tomiko split up for a day, with Hirayama going to visit the deceased friend and Tomiko spending the night with their youngest son, Shuji, at his apartment. Hirayama winds up getting drunk with an old classmate (even though he’s sworn off alcohol for some time) and Tomiko is pleasantly surprised when she gets to meet Shuji’s fiancee, Noriko. As the youngest son, and something of a free spirit, Shuji’s siblings often complain that he has “been nothing but worry to us.” He is invariably late, holds no stable job, and can never manage his money properly. Still, when Shuji and his mother are together it’s clear that they share a deep bond and real companionship, something the other children clearly lack. However, Tomiko still makes Shuji promise to tell his father about Noriko, saying that “if he disapproves I will intervene and all will be well.”

The next day, back at Koichi’s house, Tomiko collapses on the stairs and falls unconscious. She is sent to the hospital where the whole family gathers, but she never wakes up. Hirayama and the whole family are crushed, but they all pull together and return to Hiroshima for their mother’s funeral. After one night the eternally busy Koichi and Shigeko need to depart for Tokyo, but Shuji and his girlfriend, Noriko, stay behind for a few days to keep Hirayama company. Finally, the day they are set to leave, the father takes Noriko aside and thanks her for taking care of his son, saying that he his grateful to her since he can now die knowing that she will be there for his son. He then gives her Tomiko’s wristwatch, which she wore and cherished for 30 years. On the ferry, having left their father behind on the island Noriko shows the watch to Shuji and tells him what his father said. Utter disbelief registers on his face, he gets excited, and keeps asking her, “my father? He said that?” Then finally a brief smile as he looks back at the island. THE END.

The above summary is too long, but I feel it’s necessary to retrace the steps of this touching film from beginning to end. It’s as if the narrative is deeply imbedded in the actors’ voices, gestures, and mannerisms and retelling it brings it all back. Also, many of the sets and interiors that the in the film have an emotional depth you rarely encounter in films these days–the apartments that Shigeko and Shuji live in really look like that person’s home and no one else’s. As a remake, Tokyo Family may fall short of its predecessor, Tokyo Monogatari, but Ozu’s film is a masterpiece that would be hard to improve on in any case. What’s most impressive is the brilliant acting, especially Kazuko Yoshiyuki in the loveable role of Tomiko and Satoshi Tsumabuki as the romantic loser Shuji.