The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Rating: ★★★★ // Beauty immersed in hardship.
Opening Line: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”
Many books gives you snapshots of a character’s life, allowing you to fill in the gaps as you wish or as you assume they would happen. This is not the case with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Prepare to be immersed fully into Theo Decker’s conscience, as you watch and experience the up-and-down roller-coaster of his life.
Summary (via GoodReads)
It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch combines vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
There were times I went from loving the story to not liking it as much, but my overall 4 star rating comes from this being a very well written book, with a complex plot, characters, and the silent suspense that lurks throughout the story. I say silent because the main conflict on the story stays buried under the bed (quite literally) until the final quarter of the book, in which all hell breaks loose. At times I actually forgot what the main conflict was, aside from the protagonist having a hard life, but then it would pop out at the right moment (mainly right as I was getting bored), and the suspense would be back. This is a unique, yet brilliant, way of telling a story.
The characters were fantastic. They weren’t all exactly “normal,” meaning some weren’t people I see myself knowing or getting involved with, but they were normal enough to convince me they existed. I really grew connected to them, and even the some I thought I disliked in the beginning, grew to show their good sides, or at least their strengths and not just their weaknesses.
“Every new event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.”
One aspect of the book that worked really well for me was the structure. The plot was written mostly linear, but there were frequent times the protagonist brought us back to stories and events that were seemingly cut out of the linear story because of irrelevance, but became relevant later in life. For example, a walk with a girlfriend was not told when it actually happened, but later when an argument took place, we were brought back to the walk because it suddenly became important. This narration technique makes the story feel real, because we see this non-linear reflection happen in our own lives.
“I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.”
The Goldfinch is not a short book. It spans many years and through many lifestyles. At times the pace slows down, but I found it sped up at exactly the right moments. There are moments when the story is very harsh and difficult to get through, but there are other moments that are so wonderfully joyful and beautiful, it just fills your heart. And, there are also times you want to smack Theo (the protagonist) upside the head for being a complete and utter baffoon!!
“We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.”
I think this book could have been edited down a bit, there were quite a bit of information that was repeated, which did serve as a reminder, but was ultimately unnecessary, and made the book longer than it needed to be. There were also certain sections in the book that seemed long and mundane, and those were the parts I got bored in—take those out and this would be a five-star book for me.
I haven’t read many fictional books revolved around art, and while I love classic art I know very little about the painters and time periods in the art world, yet this book was still easy to follow. It really made me want to become an antique dealer or a painter (or a forger, but I won’t get that carried away…). I really enjoyed the art aspect, and I’m glad she didn’t just skim the surface of it, but dove deep into the topic.
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”
When I think back on this book, I feel like I’ve read two separate books. One, I absolutely loved and I think about the plot often, the second one made me pretty uncomfortable because the content was so harsh. There are parts that deal with hard drugs and gangs, and normally this is a tough topic to read about, but Tartt does such a good job making it seem real, that it makes it much harder to read than usual.
Some reviews I have read compare this book to a Dickens novel, and I think that’s fair because it reflects on the hard life, but while reading it I read it more like a Russian novel because it has that hardship, but it also has the philosophy and light that isn’t always clearly found in a Dickens’ novel.
My advice on this book is, first of all, go for it. It’s rich and hard at parts, but I think the ending and the main plot are worth the read. The most difficult part is when he is living in Vegas, but this part passes and the book improves again after he leave. Hang in there, it’s worth it.
The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius