The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Maturity Level: 5
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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.
5-stars for quality. 3-stars for personal enjoyment.
The Goldfinch is everything that people either love or hate about literary fiction. Gorgeous prose. Absolutely stunning. But so much of it. And the details! So many people compare The Goldfinch to Great Expectations (a comparison I think it’s safe to say Tartt was going for…), but it reminded me more of Moby Dick. If Melville had been writing about art and antique furniture rather than whaling… It was philosophical and gritty and stream-of-consciousness and everything that epitomizes 21st century literary fiction.
On a personal note, I loved the bare bones of the story. Theo inadvertently steals a priceless masterpiece in the midst of tragedy and confusion, and spends the rest of his life trying to figure out what to do with it. Great story! I also loved the insight into art, a subject I know little about but am fascinated by anyway. I did not at all enjoy … well … anything else about it.
Theo was one of my least favorite protagonists of all time. He started off well enough, but after the initial tragedy he lost any sense of character. He just imitated whoever the people around him were. And how refreshing! A literary fiction about an upper-middle class white man who lives in New York, is depressed, and does a lot of alcohol and drugs! What a break from the ordinary!
Please, note the sarcasm.
Boris, who one noted reviewer claimed to be one of literature’s great characters, just showed to me everything that is wrong with our society. Friendship, true friendship, is about so much more than just love. It’s about looking out for each other. Boris, in my opinion, is just about the worst friend you could have. He leads Theo on a bad path of drugs, alcohol, illegal activities, and eventually killing. Why do we idolize men like that?
And the whole tone was just so depressing. Tartt’s ultimate conclusion at the end of the novel is “life is catastrophe.” I don’t mind some philosophizing in my literature, but I personally prefer something a little more uplifting. I have enough trouble staying positive and feeling good without 800 pages of “life is catastrophe” in my life.
The philosophical bits also felt very heavy-handed to me, especially at the end. In the last chapter as Tartt observes how all paintings are self-portraits (by which I understood this book is a self-portrait) she says “There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution.” To which I could only respond, then why are the last 20 pages of this book nothing but moralizing and resolution? She should have taken her own advice.
I feel that I can’t recommend or not recommend this book. You know yourself best. If literary fiction is your thing, you’ll probably join critics in calling The Goldfinch the book of the decade. If literary fiction isn’t for you, go ahead and take a pass.