Book Review: The Goldfinch

Thursday 23 October 2014 by

The Goldfinch, Little Brown, Book, Donna Tartt, AbacusThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Published by Abacus

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family on a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by a longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld.

~*~

Donna Tartt is a genius at character. In The Secret History, it is the highly-charged underworld of university, and in The Goldfinch it is the fraught criminal world of art theft.

Theo Decker is our tragic hero throughout. When he loses his mother in a horrific event, he is shipped from pillar to post without much thought of the impact the event had on him. But he has a vital secret – The Goldfinch. A rare, priceless painting that he keeps hidden, but obsesses over.

It isn’t until Theo is an adult, trying to maintain a life of relative non-crime (the falsifying of antiques is perhaps less criminal than some options) that the painting really comes back to haunt him.

This is a transfixing novel – not so much twists, but unexpected turns and the odd inevitable about-face. What I expect when I read a novel is plausibility (even in fantasy and sci-fi) – the character should never do anything out-of-character unless it is reasonably justified. Tartt has always delivered on her promises with her characters, and this is no exception.

You are borne along with Theo as he finds himself deeper and deeper in a world he doesn’t want to be a part of. You want to scream in frustration at him, because for all his savvy and intellect, he’s terribly naïve. But you also feel for him on an almost animal level, for the injustices he suffers – you almost want to cry when his father takes him to Las Vegas and away from what could have been a stable life. But then he is the master of his own destruction, avoiding returning the painting and allowing himself to be carried by the whims of others.

This is an epic read at a whopping 864 pages, and at times it can be a bit of a chore to read – there are points at which the story drags its feet, and you feel more bored of Theo than interested by him. But the writing is good enough to keep you locked in, reading to the end. Perhaps because you get a glimpse of the ending in the beginning or perhaps because Theo, for all that he can bore, for all his naïveté, is a compelling character that you don’t want to part with.

The Goldfinch itself is almost a manifested character too – it hovers in the background, a glimmer in a grey room, and Tartt is incredible at making you see the painting in the same way as Theo – as a magical piece. In the end, it is perhaps that magical painting that holds this book together, more than even Theo. You can feel Tartt’s passion for the painting in the writing, and you are borne up with it. I’m no art connoisseur myself, but I certainly feel more deeply invested in the art world than any visit to a gallery has ever managed.

If I may say it, I actually prefer The Goldfinch to her classic, The Secret History. I never truly connected with the characters in TSH, but Theo (and surrounding cast) feel more realistic to me and so I felt more invested in the story. Even Theo’s absent mother impacts on the read. You do have to commit to this read – some threads of the plot are easily lost amongst the more obvious ones, but end up being all the more important. This is an artful novel, and despite being a heavyweight, it never lets go of its point. It is as succinct in its storytelling as a Hemingway, with none of the taciturn finishes. It goes one step further than a novel usually does; it enraptures a new audience to art… I now must see the painting, because I’m in love with it already!

You can easily see why it was nominated for awards – Tartt demonstrates once more that she is master of the story, and it’s a treat to read it.

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