Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book Review: "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

Whoa. This was a big book in every sense of the word—big in size (nearly 800 pages), big in adventure and characterization, and big in ideas—about life, love, art, and destiny. While it times it moved a bit slower than I would have liked, it felt smaller (in a good way) and much more accessible than many novels of this size do.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker had his life change instantly when he survived an accident that killed his mother. With his father's whereabouts unknown and no other family to be found, Theo moves into the palatial Park Avenue apartment home of a distant friend. As he navigates the interesting dynamics of this family, and tries to deal with his overwhelming grief, the one thing he has that makes him continue to feel connected to his mother is her favorite painting, a small, affecting painting by a lesser-known Dutch master.

"But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck so illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead."

In addition to his friend, Andy, Theo's closest companions during his time in New York are antiques expert James "Hobie" Hobart, who takes him under his wing and teaches Theo everything he knows about furniture restoration and the appreciation of antiques, and Pippa, a young girl with whom Theo has a powerful and tragic connection. And when Theo's father shows up in New York and moves him to Las Vegas to live with him and his cocktail waitress girlfriend, Xandra, Theo's life changes again.

While in Las Vegas, Theo befriends Boris, a troubled underachiever with a passion for money and drugs. Their friendship is intense, and Boris' influence changes Theo in many ways. Both see the other as a refuge from the chaos of their own lives, and as Theo realizes that his father's life isn't as perfect as he's made it seem, Boris helps him cope—mostly with the help of illegal substances.

The Goldfinch follows Theo's life into adulthood, with his return to New York, and finding himself constantly facing challenges. He is never truly far away from his grief over his mother's death, or his obsession with the painting, which leads him into the art underworld.

"Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?"

Even though his character was tremendously flawed, I loved Theo and was completely immersed in his story. I also found Hobie and Pippa's characters tremendously fascinating, and developed a warmth for the Barbour family as well. Sadly, I wasn't as enamored with Boris' character—I felt that every time he spoke in the book, he spoke for far too long, and Donna Tartt's portrayal of his accent made much of what he said a little hard to follow. I found myself imagining what it might be like to get to know Hobie and Pippa, that's how fascinating I found them.

This book tackles some important questions about art and beauty, loss and living up to one's destiny. But beyond that it is about how powerful an anchor grief and guilt can be, and how dramatically the two can change the outcome of one's life. Donna Tartt—author of one of my most favorite books, The Secret History—is a wonderfully enigmatic and captivating storyteller, but I felt as if she crammed a little too much into this book. I honestly could have done without the whole art underworld thread of the plot, and I don't believe it would have affected the book.

You may think to yourself, almost 800 pages? Is it worth it? Will I be able to get into the story? I'd say unequivocally, yes, to both of those questions. While not a perfect book, The Goldfinch is one that will leave you thinking long after you've finished it.


  1. I'm about a fifth of the way through this book and have been indulging in some review trawling.
    I had heard some negative stuff and feared taking this brick of a book away with me on holidays in case it was no good after all. So I started it during the week.
    Big mistake!! Because now I want to devote all my time to reading it and I have too many pre-Christmas calls on my time!
    I basically skimmed your review in case I read something I shouldn't...just looked for the part where you liked it or not :-)

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