The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a wildly popular Pulitzer Prize winning book, it has been read by millions but it seems to divide opinion. People complain about it’s 864 page length and sometimes unnecessary winding descriptions. Others have issues with the plot itself and the philosophical notions which become more apparent as the book develops. In stark contrast to these views, I loved this book. It was one of the few books I have read recently where time disappeared, where I was completely engrossed in the life of Theodore Decker. It is a book with an explosive start(no pun intended) and slowly drifts along, describing different periods in Theo’s troubled life. I think this book is very much a Dickensian style novel where one could draw comparisons between Pip in Dickens Great Expectations and Theo in this book, both the unwanted boys who must fight every inch to survive and are granted one unbelievable piece of good luck each to form their respective lives. The book has been panned by many of the literary critics as a children’s book or as an example of the watered down version of literature that is being produced nowadays. I strongly believe this is complete nonsense and this is just another example of the book snobbery that exists. There is a fantastic article on The Godlfinch and why Tartt has been criticized so heavily here.
A brief summary of the book; Theo is alone in life, his mother dies in a terrorist explosion in an art museum in New York. He lacks direction and guidance of any sort and is lost in life. He has one constant comfort though, he escaped with Carel Fabritius’ masterpiece The Goldfinch during the explosion. This painting becomes the centerpiece of the story, it is the source of worry and strength to Theo at different points in his troubled life.
The book is divided up into different periods in Theo’s life, this was an aspect of the book I enjoyed, he began life as a loving son who worshipped his mother and despised his feckless father. He then began an adopted life living a wealthy family in New York once his mother passed. The third period of his life was the most fascinating in my opinion, Theo goes out to Las Vegas and becomes friends with a kindred lonely spirit in the form of Boris, a hard drinking, hard living boy whose impulses often lead his astray. The final period focuses on Theo’s adult life as he copes with drug addiction and depression and unrelenting guilt over the painting and his relationship with his father.
The book meanders off point quite a bit, the main story is that Theo has this masterpiece painting in his closet which is priceless and is wanted by the American government badly. There is a huge investigation into the whereabouts of the picture. As time passes the worse the crime becomes for Theo. Then the whole painting story takes a back seat for three or four hundred pages. The book focuses on Theo’s troubled relationship with an abusive and absent father, it delves into the day to day misadventures of Theo and Boris as they drink and rob their way through their adolescence. It can be annoying at times because as the reader you are interested in Theo’s character but at the same time you get little or no information about the painting or what the protagonist intends to do with it.
The ending of the book is a satisfying one, I was dreading an ambiguous or confusing conclusion which tarnishes the books promising development but alas this did not happen. The last few pages of the book are philosophical and spiritual. Tartt makes some interesting points on life and people’s natural desire to pursue their impulses. I think I will read this passage again at another stage and fully digest it’s intentions but it certainly was a musing which resonated strongly with me. Tartt describes the Goldfinch painting in these final pages and describes some of the interpretations of the artists intentions. The painting depicts a goldfinch tied to it’s feeder. It is a sad and cruel picture but holds such dignity also. Theo muses over why Fabritius painted the Goldlfinch in the first place and wonders ‘And if they say it is trues-if every great painting is really a self portrait- what, if anything, is Fabritius saying about himself?’ I loved this line especially. I frequently looked at the portrait provided in the book and wondered myself at the intention of the painting. It is a despairing and beautiful painting which is somehow linked to Theo himself- the captive who can never escape it’s chains.
It is a fantastic book which I will read again at some point in the future. Certainly a book I hope will stand the test of literary time. Did you love or loathe The Goldfinch? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear your view. I think I might order a reproduction of The Goldfinch painting myself to ponder over from time to time.