I always hesitate to write reviews of really popular books or classics because there are simply so many out there – on blogs, on Goodreads, from professional critics (which I am clearly not). I never really know what to say or what to add to the conversation that hasn’t been said before. I am especially hesitant to review The Goldfinch because, really, how can you sum up a nearly 900-page Pulitzer-winning tome in a 1,000-word blog post?
This book is daunting (both in its reading and its reviewing). It’s long and sprawling and at times so dark it’s hard to see that there will ever be light again. But oh man, is it a pretty book.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch starts with our main character Theo and his mom taking a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before a parent-teacher conference to see her favorite Dutch painting (the novel’s namesake). There’s an explosion. Theo manages to escape – with the painting – but without his mother. At first, he lives with the family of a friend, adjusting to his “new normal” of people who don’t know how to talk to him, grieving his mother’s death, and of course, keeping secret his theft of the painting. He’s then shuttled off to live in a mostly-vacant suburb of Las Vegas with his grossly negligent father. Here’s where we enter a wasteland of teenage boredom and grief and copious recreational drug use facilitated by Theo’s new Russian bestie Boris. It’s a really bad time, guys. So much so that it lasts for like half of the book (or at least it feels that way). I’ll get to the book’s editing problems in a minute…anyway, Theo eventually moves back to New York, living with Hobie, an antique furniture restorer who was the partner of one of the other explosion victims. He learns the antiques trade, though thanks to his moral-free teenage years, isn’t exactly honest, and finds himself at the center of an unsavory circle of underground art dealers (and worse) and grasping to the one thing he holds dear – the painting.
It’s so hard for me to explain my feelings about this book. I swing from “meh” to “LOVE love” to “it’s complicated” depending on the day (or minute). Donna Tartt is clearly a very talented storyteller, and on the whole, this book is beautiful. The last chapter alone is worth the Pulitzer in my opinion. But could this book have been at least 100 pages shorter? MOST DEFINITELY. The endless depressing drunken teenage cavorting with Boris could easily have been cut in half. Tartt’s attention to detail is remarkable and she manages to capture places and moments and emotions and characters so vividly…but yeah, more editing would have made for a much more cohesive and effective novel, with pacing that was more even (i.e., not going from a loping stroll to full out sprint in a matter of pages).
Theo is one of those characters that you wish you could grab by the shoulders and shake, yelling at him about his stupid life decisions. God, he makes so many! He is tragically flawed through his grief and obsession and clearly, it’s a potent combination that usually doesn’t end well for him. This book is truly about surviving the whims of fate, who in Theo’s case is a cruel and ruthless master. Tartt asks if we can rise above all the crap that happens to us, accepting the pain and heartbreak that comes with being a human, and still finding moments of joy. In a way, the themes of The Goldfinch remind me of The Bookman’s Tale (though the similarities definitely end there). In both novels, we’re presented with a character strung out on obsession and self-destruction who ultimately learns to, in the immortal words of Dory, just keep swimming. Theo’s one saving grace is his relationships, which Tartt describes so vividly. Whether it’s his raucous and desperate friendship with Boris or his unrequited love for his idealized Pippa or his absolute devotion to his painting, his relationships drive the story when the plot decides to take a few breaks now and then.
Despite its heftiness (physically and topically), I am so glad I read The Goldfinch. It IS beautifully written with characters as complicated and nuanced as real people. Situations alternately lovely and bleak. Story that (thankfully) tightens up as you are nearing the finish line. But parts of it I loved and parts I hated. Sometimes I want to praise it, other times I am at a loss for anything good to say about it. I would never recommend it to all readers, for sure, but I do think it’s worth your time to dig your way through.
Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)