Flawed but fascinating (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Little, Brown and Company- October 2013
I read the Kindle edition. The hardback is 771 pages
Another chunkster! And this time one I was sensible enough to obtain it in an electronic version. Go me.
I must say, that after a terrifically engrossing start, I did expect The Goldfinch to continue to be the perfect novel. It’s not, unfortunately, but it is an amazing read and one that I’m very pleased I picked up. I enjoyed it just as much as Tartt’s “The Secret History” though its premise is very different.
This is actually a story about the shadowy art underworld and an orphan who becomes immersed in it. Set between New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam and filled with secrets, lies, betrayal and memorable characters, it is a pacey novel awash with twists and turns that had me hanging on until the very last chapter.
Following an explosion in a museum that takes the life of his mother and in the aftermath of the devastation, teenager Theo Decker removes a painting from the ruined gallery- a small exquisite work by Dutch master Carel Fabritius, known as The Goldfinch. The painting reminds Theo of his mother, though very aware that he has committed a pertinent art theft, he strives desperately to hide it. As he moves from the streets of New York to the burning desert of Nevada, the one constant in his life over the years remains this singular piece of art- though dangerous figures are also closing in on Theo, who want it for themselves…
Firstly, I will admit that I know nothing about art, other than it is purely subjective. I don’t particularly know “what” makes a great painting but I know what I like to look at myself. So, on that basis I admit I wasn’t initially prepared for all of the ramblings about paintings, the artists, their masterfulness and the intrinsic details about pictures that appealed to collectors. It did feel a bit overly researched and repetitive. That aside, I was interested in knowing more about this one painting and why exactly it was so notorious. Tartt does a great job in making The Goldfinch something tangible and magnificent, a piece of art that resonates with so many people and, like his mother before him, lures Theo into its thrall. When I’ve looked it up online, to me it is just a painting of a bird, pretty cute and all, but hey. I suppose I am just an art philistine…
The Goldfinch is a gritty read too; after the initial explosion that wrecks Theo’s world it is not afraid to delve further into the murky waters of drug taking, poverty, gambling and alcoholism. There are a lot of complex themes woven throughout which add a depth of harsh realism to the plot. Art can indeed be beautiful, but sadly in the world in which it moves, that does not always prove to be the case. I enjoyed these bold contrasts.
I love Tartt’s lush, elegant prose and vivid descriptions of both characters and surroundings. New York itself becomes a character within the novel and was portrayed in such a masterful way, as was the arid bleakness of suburban Nevada. Theo is just an a-typical (though very smart) teenage boy until his life is destroyed in the worst way imaginable. From then on, his life is a constant upheaval. I wanted him to have some kind of happy ending eventually. He realises that he has done wrong in taking the painting and each time he manages to have some sort of stability in his life, there is the constant knowledge that he is hiding such a significant secret- you know it won’t end well, which adds a continual sense of tension to the proceedings.
The secondary characters were particularly well-drawn too, from Theo’s best friend Boris, an odd, eccentric character (complete bromance there), to his guardian, Hobie, who Theo connects with following the explosion. As Theo grows up, he comes to depend on Hobie and learns a great deal from him. He is caring and teaches his new protégé a lot- not only about the antiques and furniture restoration trade in which he works, but also about life. That being said, Hobie came into Theo’s world at just the right time, he was lost and grieving and needed that kind of guidance. Their relationship should have felt contrived, only it didn’t. I feel that the only slight weirdness about some of the cast of characters though, was their slight tendency to speak in a rather dated, Dickensian fashion; I personally don’t know of any teenage boys who speak in that way, nor indeed muse so much in the way that Theo and Boris did- their reckless bouts of hedonism in Las Vegas though, were amazingly vivid, albeit not recommended for anyone.
The story does a really terrific job in exploring grief. The depictions following Theo’s mum’s death are heartbreakingly realistic- both in how Theo himself behaves and in how others treat him. He reflects on all of the ‘lasts’ he experienced with his mother and even his closest friend’s reactions to the tragedy are stilted and awkward. My heart just about broke for him at that point, and then for the next portion of the book he remained increasingly disorientated- taken from everything that he knew and loved and placed into an unfamiliar environment. It is really no wonder he becomes so screwed up later in life…
For me, the most disappointing aspect about this story was surprisingly, it’s ending. The last quarter of the book just felt disconnected from the rest of the text; I found it jarring. It didn’t seem to fit entirely and I actually found myself feeling a little bit bored. I think after the way the story had been built up and so much elaborated on, this was slightly disappointing, although pretty fitting. Theo just becomes too philosophical for my tastes, I’m afraid- this could have been wrapped up much quicker than it was.
I would recommend The Goldfinch for readers looking for an intellectual, engaging storyline that makes them feel for the characters- people looking to fully immerse themselves into their reading experience. I also really hope it isn’t nearly another decade before we see another novel from Donna Tartt…!