It’s Sunday morning. I awoke to gloomy overcast skies. As is the case in the area I reside in, weather is fluid. A somber morning like this, with heavy fog, can quickly transform into a bright and summery clime, once the sun decides to use its full power. Which I’m sure it will as the day progresses. As for now, I’m staring out into the gray. It feels like an appropriate backdrop to write this review in. I finished reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, a few days ago. It left me a bit speechless. I needed time to mine and process what my true feelings were about this book. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m even fully there yet. But here goes.
The Goldfinch centers around the life of its main character, Theo Decker, who also acts as the story’s narrator. At the age of thirteen, Theo survives a terrorist bombing in a New York art museum, which unfortunately kills his mother as well as many other museum-goers. As Theo makes his escape from the destruction of the building, he secretly takes a painting with him. It’s one of the pieces his mother adored, in which a small bird is tethered to a perch: The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius. From this consequential moment onward, Theo’s life is thrust into chaos. Because his father is not around, Theo is bombarded with the interventions of well-meaning, but clueless adults; teachers, counselors, and caseworkers brought in ostensibly to help Theo manage the crisis at hand. But they only serve to increase his anxiety and feelings of isolation. When he is taken in by a wealthy family of one of his friends, Theo begins to find some semblance of stability, albeit awkward at times. But just as he starts to see a possible path forward, his tenuous place in this new family is interrupted.
The reader follows Theo into adulthood, where in spite of nursing a serious case of unrequited love, he has found success professionally as an antiques dealer. Under the tutelage of a kind-hearted father-figure/friend, named Hobie, Theo develops knowledge and confidence in the antiquarian world. He enjoys the drama of the auction house, and the art of effective buyer-seller negotiation. However, Theo is living a life of dark secrets. It’s not only the stolen painting, that should give one pause. These secrets pose a threat to him professionally and personally. And as he slides deeper and deeper into the darkness, Theo’s very survival could be on the line.
Without a doubt, Donna Tartt is a superb writer. There were times while reading The Goldfinch that I momentarily dissociated from the story itself and just became enraptured by the words. I would think to myself, “Damn, I wish I could write like that.” It’s pure genius really. But please, do not view those dissociative interludes as a criticism of the story. Tartt is an amazing story-teller and in The Goldfinch she has created a work that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. That being said, this novel aroused some frustration in me. Did there need to be pages and pages, detailed descriptions of cross-country bus-rides, or drug and alcohol binges? I’m not sure it did. It reminded me of when I first read Anna Karenina. There’s a scene in the novel where a significant amount of time is dedicated to describing the scything of wheat fields. Meanwhile, I’m tapping my feet, waiting for Levin and Kitty to be in the same room together again. What I’m getting at is, I understand it’s a necessary part of the plot. I just question whether that amount of detail really benefits the overall story. I also found that because of the lengthiness of The Goldfinch, my empathy for Theo started to wear thin toward the latter third of the book. I understand his feelings of loss and grief all too well. Acts of God, the fragility of life, these are things I have struggled with myself. Add to this, the fact that Theo is clearly suffering from PTSD, which must be taken into account when evaluating his behavior and actions. But it’s still difficult to watch someone repeatedly make bad choices. Especially, when you know deep down they’re a good person. Perhaps, my response is what the author intended readers to feel. Real life is complicated and messy. Relationships, romantic and platonic, aren’t always clearly defined. Perspectives differ. And no one is perfect. We’re all just managing; doing the best we can. Maybe that’s why Theo is so intensely attached to The Goldfinch painting. It’s, of course, a link to his beloved mother. And perhaps the allure of the painting’s undeniable beauty and nuance is as close to captured perfection as Theo can ever hope to be.