Recent Reading: The Goldfinch, Frances & Bernard, Cop Town

the goldfinchI have stalled in my reading of The Goldfinch at an embarrassingly early part of the book, well, if we are counting in inches, that is. Maybe it’s the fault of the strange combination of part-listening to the audio book, part-reading the wrist-breaking real thing that has left me floating still on top of the story, rather than stitched down into it. But essentially it’s because the next couple of hundred pages appear to be a teenage drink-and-drugs odyssey and I can’t think of anything I’d rather read less. I was going to suggest maybe two hundred pages of unpleasant hospital treatment, but then that would be a book I would never pick up in the first place.

Most books, when you hit a dull patch, you can think to yourself, oh well, thirty pages tops and then we’ll be past it. Not this one. And whilst Donna Tartt’s writing is fine (somehow I remember The Secret History as much better written, but that could just be the work of unreliable memory), she’s only going to tell me what happens, in minute detail. If I thought it was the kind of writing that would be rich in psychological insights and what events mean, I might be more interested. But The Goldfinch so far has been a novel of painstaking description, with a faint fairy-tale quality to the story and its characterisation. I never had the least interest in drink and drugs as a teenager, and I have even less now. I don’t enjoy skim-reading and I’m not sure I have the stamina to plough through what lies ahead. I don’t want to give up, and yet I don’t have much interest in continuing.

frances and bernardOn a happier note, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer was pure delight. An epistolary novel set in the 1950s, we follow the correspondance between novelist Frances Reardon and poet Bernard Eliot, who have recently met at a writing commune. Bernard has now gone to Florence to finish his book, whilst Frances has returned home to Philadelphia to write hers. Shortly they will both end up in New York. Bernard is attracted to Frances because of her devout religious views and her upright, stern moral demeanour. Bernard is a Catholic in love with ecstasy in all its forms and he is drawn to Frances’ gravitas, as an anchor, perhaps, to his volatile and fierce emotions. They are unlikely friends and even less likely lovers, not least because Frances is determined to remain single and avoid the complications of domesticity that might ruin her work.

But Bernard is a big heart and an outgoing spirit; he loves easily, deeply, magnetically. The downside of this is an inevitable mental fragility, and before long his letters will grow wilder and a spell in an institution is inevitable. Frances values their friendship by now and assures him that she is not afraid of him (Frances would not want to be afraid of anything), and almost against her will she is drawn closer to his vulnerability.

The writing in this novel was just exquisite. It’s a brilliant character portrait of two very different writers and of an unexpected and awkward relationship that nevertheless has moments of sublime grace. Given that she has two writers engaged in a battle of wits and wills, Bauer can just have fun with their voices, which she most certainly does. Apparently, the couple is loosely based on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. I would not have guessed this myself and I don’t think it matters much one way or another to know about the biographical background. There is a great deal of chat about religion, though, which might strike secular readers as unusual. But it echoes and questions the way art can become a religion – this in a very subtle way – how passion is necessary in one form or another though we might make very different uses of it. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed every sentence of this one.

cop townAnother book I enjoyed, from the opposite end of the reading spectrum, was Karin Slaughter’s latest novel, Cop Town. Set in the 70s in Atlanta it’s essentially the story of new recruit to the force, Kate Murphy and the woman who gives her a helping hand on her traumatic first day, Maggie Lawson. Maggie has grown up in a police family and, against just about everyone’s wishes, joined the force alongside her brother, much beloved ex-football star, Jimmy, and her brutal, misogynist Uncle Terry. Terry represents everything the white male police force is about; he despises women, he despises foreigners, and he has no respect for the law when it’s in his own hands. When the book begins Jimmy’s partner, Don, has been the latest victim of a cop killer wreaking havoc in the city. The force is on red alert, determined to mete out its own justice to the killer when they find him. With a black mayor and a black head of police, times are changing, and the old boys have no faith in the authorities, which is rich given that Uncle Terry’s planted evidence on their last conviction caused the case to fall through.

Into this ugly regime stumbles Kate, a widow whose husband recently died in Vietnam. She is well-spoken, attractive, and Jewish; she’s also lived a gentle life up until now. Oh boy, is she in for a nasty shock. What Karin Slaughter does so brilliantly in this novel, as well as in the best literary fiction, is recreate the conditions of the 70s that we all have convenient amnesia about. It’s a man’s world, in which women need to shut up and stop asking stupid questions, and anyone who isn’t white and American needs to remember their place. Her description of the bad side of town is particularly hard-hitting too. Whilst a lot of novels depict places you might actually want to visit, Cop Town makes a reader feel very relieved to be safely in the new millenium. An excellent novel about how we used to be, but a violent and graphic one, be warned.


40 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Goldfinch, Frances & Bernard, Cop Town

  1. In my opinion you have read the best part of The Goldfinch. I did quite enjoy the Las Vegas section but yes, it’s all description and no analysis, and then I just got fed up and skim-read the last bit out of duty (I didn’t actually care in the slightest what happened). And still I feel The Guilt! I haven’t been a good enough reader for Donna Tartt!

    Is Karin Slaughter a pseudonym? If not, the poor woman was never going to be able to write romances or children’s books. As someone who had to switch off The Woman in Black (which I was only watching to use in a lesson this evening) because the faces were too scary, I don’t think I’ll be able to cope with this one, but it was good to read about it. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on The Goldfinch with me (so reassuring!) and ach, The Guilt!! Isn’t it hard to avoid? Your comments on Karin Slaughter did make me laugh. I do hope it’s a pseudonym. I am hopeless at watching anything scary on the telly, but I’m fine with books, oddly enough. I feel that anything I see I have to live with inside my mind forever more, whereas anything I read will undoubtedly disappear under the continual onslaught of further reading. Oh and I don’t have to imagine things if I don’t want to. But given how I feel about television, I have every sympathy – no need to subject yourself to anything you don’t want to!

  2. I confess that I haven’t picked up the Tartt because I figured it would never match up to “The Secret History” which I loved. But I found The Little Friend a complete disappointment and the reviews of this one were mixed enough for me to think I would be best not spending time there. Maybe now is the time to cut your losses…..?

    • This is the big question! I’ve already read enough page-wise to account for a small novel, and there are enough pages left for two more small novels! Should I indeed move onto two other novels?? My feeling is that you are wise in your assessments. There is nothing wrong with this novel, it’s well-written and heartfelt and I’m sure Tartt will create a decent bildungsroman out of it. But I couldn’t give you any strong reasons for reading it over other things.

  3. I have no guilt whatsoever to say that I think Dona Tartt is overrated – at least, I don’t get on with her, even The Secret History felt dull in parts and unedited to me.
    You’ve got me interested in Frances and Bernard though, I may well add it to my wishlist.

    • Oh how I loved Frances and Bernard! And I would love to know what you think of it. It’s great to hear your absence of guilt – that is surely the right way to go about it! Not every author pleases every reader at the best of times, and if you are not a fan of big books (which I am not on the whole) then she’s a hard sell.

  4. I got fed up with her describing EVERYTHING too. Left very little to the imagination, but Hobie and Boris made up for it, even if the Las Vegas section was tedious. I have heard other good things about the Carlene Bauer novel (it’s in my TBR) so glad you enjoyed it too.

    • I remember you reading it for your book club! I love Hobie as a character but haven’t quite reached Boris yet. I’ve heard such good things about him but is it enough to drag me through the drug odyssey? The Carlene Bauer is a delight and I’d love to know what you think of it.

  5. I felt while I was reading it that I could probably skip all of the drink and drugs section and not be any the worse off. After I’d finished it I realised I’d been right, but it was a bit late then. You could take up reading again when Theo’s an adult, and if you’re puzzled by anything, post here and I’m sure someone will fill you in.

    • Ooh now that is good news. I have been sneakily wondering if I could just skip a section and it wouldn’t make much difference. Thank you! That is my best hope for continuing with it!

  6. Quite the diversity of reading! Frances and Bernard sounds delightful. Are you going to keep going with Tartt? I briefly considered giving the book a whirl when it was first out but thought I’d wait and the longer I wait, the less interested I am in reading it.

    • Frances and Bernard is wonderful, and I think you would like it because the quality of writing is so good. I do want to finish the Tartt because I don’t like giving up on books. I may have a little rest from it and tackle it again in a couple of weeks – especially if as Denise suggests, I can skip the offending section! 😉

  7. I have adored The Secret History for years, and found much to enjoy in The Goldfinch, BUT – I felt she really needed better editing for it. A hundred pages could have been dropped without losing anything.

    • I’m glad to hear you say that, as a fan of her writing. I struggle to believe any book needs to be longer than 500 pages, but that’s not a common feeling. There’s a strong tendency with big name authors not to edit, isn’t there? I remember all the Harry Potter books after book 4 could have used some tightening. I would still feel I’d had value for money if the book was an inch thinner but a lot tighter!

  8. I got through The Goldfinch on audio. And I think it’s much easier that way. The best part is the first part, and after that it got crazier and crazier. Wait till you hit the end. Anyway, I do think listening to someone telling you the story may have a cushioning effect which may help… better than reading a hospital procedural. 😉

    • That’s how I began – by listening to it – and the narrator had a great voice with some wonderful characterisations. But when I compared where I was to the book I realised I’d listened to four hours and was barely over the first hundred pages… and then life seemed sort of short. So I picked up the book as I can read to myself much faster. However, it is a really good audio adaptation and I was impressed with the narrator. It’s a shame I don’t have a daily commute or something that means I might as well be listening to a book as do anything else!

  9. Yet to even start The Goldfinch my guilt of not doing so is firmly appeased! Like Marina Francis & Bernard definitely appeal & I’m quite taken with the idea it’s loosely based on Flannery & her agent… I’ve just read some long short stories/novellas by Slaughter and enjoyed her writing… must explore her novels now too 🙂

    • Frances and Bernard is just wonderful and I’d love to know what you think of it. I’ll apply that thought to my own guilt and see if it feels better! And I didn’t realise Karin Slaughter had written short stories. I haven’t read many of her novels (only this and one other) but I would definitely go back to her again.

  10. Frances and Bernard sounds wonderful. I also want to read Cop Town. I would be interested in The Goldfinch but I have a problem holding books like that. I guess we have similar wrists. 🙂

    • Ha, yes! I think we do! I am pretty sure you would like Frances and Bernard and I have no doubt at all that you’d love Cop Town – I’ll watch our for your thoughts on that one!

  11. I had The Goldfinch on hold at the library and by the time my turn came around I no longer had any desire to read it, but I can’t remember why. However, a friend told me I had to read Karin Slaughter, and I did. As I sit here I can’t remember the title, but it was a pretty exciting, I do remember that.

    • Ah I had forgotten that you like a bit of crime, Grad. I was very impressed by Slaughter, and well done on remembering the name of the book – I’ll add that one to my list!

  12. The Goldfinch has been languishing on my Kindle for the best part of two years, and I seriously doubt whether I’ll ever get to it! The Bauer, on the other hand, sounds wonderful, right up my street – you had me at the 1950s, and the New York setting is a bonus. I’m off to add it to my wishlist before I forget. 🙂

    • Oh now, you are the perfect reader for Frances and Bernard, Jacqui. It is such an exquisite novel, so beautifully done. Mind you, I’d love to know what you think of either of them – the Bauer or the Goldfinch if you ever do get to it!

  13. Hearing this has just pushed The Goldfinch even further down the reading list. I bought it (fortunately in e-form) when I was embarking on a long flight but never got to start it even.

    • It is probably much easier to read e-form as it won’t hurt your wrists! I suspect it’s exactly the right book for a long flight as you can get into the story and then stick with it past any longeurs. I have dipped in and out of it, first in audio and then in paper and I don’t think that’s helped. But at the same time, life is short and there are many, many books calling our name!

  14. Oh well! If The Goldfinch isn’t for you then it isn’t! I liked it a lot, but I understand perfectly why many people aren’t crazy about it. If you’re not crazy about Boris (WHICH I WAS), I can see how the middle sections would grow tedious.

    • I haven’t actually reached the arrival of Boris yet. I have heard lots of good things about him as a character, though, but can’t decide (on the basis of no evidence, so not surprising) whether he will be enough to get me through the drink and the drugs. I’m guessing Boris is not a wise sort who counsels Theo to read a good book instead?

  15. Frances and Bernard sounds so interesting! I might have mentally added it to my wishlist.. I’ve considered picking up Donna Tartt’s books before but have always been put off by the size. I often love big books once I’m into them, but they do tend to intimidate me at first! Not sure I’ll be picking up The Goldfinch having read what you have to say about it, but I might try The Secret History.. I’ve heard lots of people say it’s much better!

    • Oh Frances and Bernard was so lovely! I am pretty sure I will read it again one day. It was just so quietly seductive. As for Donna Tartt, I think The Secret History is a really good place to begin with her novels, and I’d love to know what you make of it!

  16. I was entertained enough to get through the Boris section, which was self-indulgent for both the character and the author. I thought the ending of the novel redeemed any self-indulgence that came before. And I was not a big fan of The Secret History, just for the record.

    • It’s good to know that you think the novel as a whole is worth it. I’m still in a quandary about what to do, but I suppose that means I haven’t given up yet… If I’m remembering correctly you did like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics? Only I have that in my bedside TBR too and am very tempted by it.

  17. I appreciated this review of The Goldfinch; now I won’t bother to read it. I’m very tired of all the focus on drugs, drinking, depression, etc., in too many contemporary novels. Where are the novels that leave you feeling good, or at least inspired? Hunting and Gathering was one, for me, and another was The Waitress Was New.

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