Book Review: ‘The Goldfinch’

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Impulse purchase that paid off.  That’s my review of this novel done in five words – boom. I’m only joking, I’ll write a little bit more than that. However it was most definitely an impulse purchase, this article about lengthy summer reads popped up on my Facebook timeline, and with my re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire coming to a close I was in the market for a tome I could get my teeth into. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Donna Tart – The Goldfinch, weighing in at just fewer than 800 pages, was recommended so I popped onto Amazon and had it on my kindle within minutes.

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Not relevant but – I love my Kindle cover, it’s from Cath Kidston and it’s lasted for over two years so far. When travelling I always pop my phone/passport in it as well!

This is a novel about loss, life changing in a second, about good and bad, adolescent confusion and the power of beauty. A painting, The Goldfinch by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (which incidentally is a real painting, but the story that unfolds around it is purely fictitious) is at the centre of this text, with vivid characters and settings drawn around it.

Donna Tartt’s power of captivation runs right from the opening scene when we meet the protagonist Theo Decker living in a hotel room in Amsterdam where, sick and haunted by fever, he dreams of his dead mother. The plot then rewinds fourteen years to reveal the close relationship between Theo and his mother, living alone after his alcoholic father abandoned them, in a flat in New York. This world is torn asunder when a bomb goes off when they are visiting an art museum. In the confusion that follows directly after the explosion Theo attempts to rescue an old man, who gives him a ring off his finger and then motions towards a painting on the wall. This is the painting that gives the novel its name, The Goldfinch. Disorientated from the blast Theo takes the painting, and the ring, escapes from the building and, still in shock returns to the flat waiting for his mother to return home. His mother however, died in the explosion and Theo’s future changes forever.

He is taken in by the Barbours, a high-society family with spiteful younger children and a mentally unstable father. Whilst trying to adapt to these changes Theo visits the address the old man gave him alongside the ring and finds himself becoming friends with Hobie, the old man’s business partner. Hobie runs an antique store, and spends most of his time restoring furniture in the basement. Theo finds comfort and friendship here and begins to take an interest in restoring furniture. Just as he seems to be adjusting to life once more, his father reappears and once again Theo’s life is upturned as he moves out to Vegas.

The strength of this novel and what makes it a great read despite its length is Tartt’s ability to depict places and people with such vivid qualities. This is very much in evidence in the passages where Theo is in Vegas, it’s a sunbleached land with near-empty towns that are gradually being taken over by the desert. Here Theo meets Boris an enigmatic, irrepressible young man with a skewed view of the world. They spend their teenage years drowning parts of themselves with vodka and pills.

From here on in these are the two themes that weave through the novel, Theo’s dependency on narcotics and his feelings about the painting. He has confused emotional attachments which alongside financial difficulties lead him into forgery – both of which he combats with narcotics, for the way they make him feel and forget. The painting is, I think, the foil to this. It reminds him that there is good in the world. However the ending of the text shows to us that good and bad are intermingled. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but the layers of deceit and confusion ultimately lead to a redemption that can’t be viewed as wholly pure.

For me this is something I loved about the novel – Tartt depicts a world where characters aren’t good or bad, they are all multi-layered and captivating. The storyline isn’t a straightforward one, but that’s what drew me in – the ambiguity, Theo does bad things but for good reasons. Combined with Tartt’s masterful storytelling this was a fantastic read.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read it – what were your thoughts on the novel? I’ve heard it described as full of clichés, but I didn’t think that was the case. What is your take on the characters and places depicted?

Becqui

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