Book review: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

 

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The Goldfinch is a painting by Fabritis, and on loan to MoMA in New York.  In a tragic set of events, 13 year-old Theo Decker acquires this valuable painting, losing his mother at the same time.  The Goldfinch follows Theo’s life, into his mid-twenties, as he struggles with this loss, and the dilemma of what to do with this piece of art.  He meets more tragedy, and makes friends with an eccentric Russian, Boris, who is somewhat of a salvation – an angel with black wings – and who eventually helps Theo in more ways than he was expecting.

The Goldfinch is an incredible novel, a completely bumpy ride.  It is told in the first person narrative, which allows us to get under the skin of Theo, the protagonist.  At times this is painful, because whilst initially I felt pity for Theo, he soon grew on my nerves.  Theo’s life takes him through several dramatic events, which ultimately shape him, but he has a wont for self-destruction that is disturbing – and frustrating.  At times you want to shake him to his senses, or for someone else to, but Theo is adept at keeping just enough of a distance.  Boris, with an appetite for drink and drugs, sums it up when he tells Theo that he, himself, is a happy drunk, but that Theo is more dangerous.

Boris is the most brilliant character, for me.  He is shallow, drug-taking, drug-trading, a thief, and yet he is absolutely engaging, and evidently cares for Theo, providing an ally when everyone else seems to let him down.  The Las Vegas years had me gripped, and in a different way, the denouement of the book in Amsterdam – this is a period that well-earns the word ‘crazy’, as Theo descends into the underworld and a drug-fuelled binge to try to escape the realities of the situation.

Tartt does sprinkle the book with sympathetic characters, none more so than Hobie, the man who eventually comes to be Theo’s almost-guardian and teacher – giving him a trade, antiques and restoration, which will both save him, and cost him.

The Goldfinch is a book with pace, and is a complete page-turner.  It is separated into five ‘acts’, with chapters and sub-chapters within it.  Tartt’s writing is exquisite in places, with the slowing of time in some phases (like the MoMa) so much that it almost stops, and you find you haven’t taken a breath.  Other phases, time has whooshed by, and you have dropped a couple of years.  This didn’t matter to me, but may annoy some readers (like my husband).

The climax of the book, the crazy period, is incredibly fast paced, followed by this period where Theo is holed up in Amsterdam, and the ending in itself is a long soliloquy, with a reflective Theo.  This is an indulgent ending, I think, and ties everything up in a ‘psycho-babble’ way (as my husband puts it).  It really annoyed him, and it didn’t sit well with me, in the context of the rest of the book, where a grittier ending might have been better given that Theo is in his mid-twenties when the book ends, and not in the later years of his life when such reflections might be more realistic.  He just didn’t feel like he ‘grew’ that much as a person in the book.

Overall a book that is well worth a read, and one which keeps the reader gasping through to the end.

 

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