Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s spellbinding new novel, The Goldfinch, stirred me to the point that I sent a text to best-selling author Sarah Bird saying that I wanted to take her up on her suggestion that we compare notes after I’d finished The Goldfinch. She texted me back saying, “You won't believe this, but we're on Grand Cayman Island! Would love to talk Goldfinch when I get back.”  Since I feared I was cutting into Sarah’s Tortuga Rum Punch time, I cut our chat short, but our brief back-and-forth did include the descriptors “dazzling,” “stunning,” “astonishing,” and “overabundance.” The Goldfinch was Sarah’s maiden venture into audio books, and she was completely wowed. As I didn’t relish straining a hand trying to hold up the 784-page tome, I, too, did the audio version, which was particularly well presented by actor, David Pittu.

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, yes, The Goldfinch is a standout book of the year, and is one of my top five favorites of 2013. Here’s why:
 Most (but not all) of the characters in this book are so richly drawn that you feel you know them personally, to the point that, like family, you worry about them when they’re not with you (like when you have to stop reading to work, sleep and eat).

Most (but not all) of Tartt’s writing is so illuminating that it takes your breath away and sends you down introspective bunny trails.

In researching to write this review, I learned a fascinating new word, Bildungsroman, a German word used in literary criticism to describe the coming-of-age literary genre, which is how many reviewers (but not this reviewer) categorized The Goldfinch.

Before I get further into my review, let’s look at the author, Donna Tartt (pictured), who is from the state that claims to have more famous writers (Faulkner, Welty, Grissom, Williams, Foote) than people who can read - Mississippi. Her college mates at Bennington (Vermont) included boyfriend, Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho and Less Than Zero) and friend, Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude). Here’s a link to some hard-to-find facts about Tartt’s personal history, which is pretty intriguing. Tartt’s first book, Secret History (1992) was a runaway best seller, and her devotees (including Stephen King) have waited patiently and impatiently for her to publish again. You may not care about Donna Tartt right now, but after you read her, you will; but back to The Goldfinch.

New Yorkers, Theo Decker (age 13) and his mom step into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to escape the rain, and to view  mom’s favorite piece of art, The Goldfinch (pictured) by Dutch artist (and student of Rembrandt) Carel Fabritius. Also viewing the painting is an older gentleman and a young, beautiful girl, who catches Theo’s eye. A terrorist bomb goes off in the museum taking the life of his mom. As Theo, stunned but unhurt, attempts to escape the catastrophe, the older gentlemen, in his dying throes, beseeches Theo to take The Goldfinch to safety, and for reasons on which one can only speculate, instructs him to contact the gentleman’s partner in a local antiques restoration shop. Theo escapes the destruction with the painting, but because it is so strongly tied to his grief for his deceased mother, he cannot bare to return it to the museum. And thus the stage is set for the reminder of the story, which spans 20 years or so and involves Theo’s migration from orphan to temporary ward of a dysfunctional Park Avenue family, to the custody of his equally dysfunctional father in a skanky suburb of Las Vegas, and back to New York, where he eventually goes into business with the museum gentleman’s antiques shop partner. And then there’s Amsterdam, about which I will not speak (spoiler). Okay, let’s just say that Theo gets involved in criminal activity.

Along the way he encounters a long and colorful list of characters, some of which loom very large in his life. One is Theo’s best friend, Boris, a Ukrainian delinquent with the savvy of a senior, and the amorality, recklessness and sexual magnetism of a pirate. Perhaps you can tell that I was particularly attracted to Boris.

 Strangely, in spite of the fact that the story is narrated by Theo, and author Tartt certainly gives him a ton of wordy musings from which we should be able to glean his personality, I just really never liked him much, or even felt I knew him well. Boris on the other hand, was an open book, and a good one at that. He was a drinker, a drugger and a scoundrel, but he was a lovable scoundrel who never pretends to be anything else. Theo on the other hand, who was also a heavy drinker and drugger (learned at the knee of Boris), is a not so lovable scoundrel because he pretends to be a good guy, and wants to be a good guy, but he really isn’t.

There was also Hobie, Theo’s partner in the antiques business. His purity of spirit and humility and his artistry in the restoration of antiques were endearing and added a soft side to an otherwise pretty hard story.

Here’s what bothered me about The Goldfinch. (1) Sometimes the rhythm was a little strange. There were stretches of intricate detail of mere minutes, then years-long lapses in time. (2) I felt Theo’s grief at the loss of mother was diminished because we never knew her. If we’d gotten more than a glimpse of her, I believe we could have empathized with Theo more.  (3) I would have liked for the painting to have more relevance than just the magic and mystery of art in general. Perhaps a play on the theme of the bird tethered to his perch, and the main character tethered to his secret or his mother. (4) Theo’s relationships to women seemed shallow and underdeveloped whereas his relationships to men were detailed and richly woven. If we understood why, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so strange. (5) Some of the story lines were so vague – like his relationship with the grandparents - that they seemed sort of pointless to me. (6) Occasionally Tartt wandered off into naval gazing so deep that I (and others according to reviews I read) became glassy-eyed – particularly at the end when she waxed so philosophical about the capacity of art to elevate one to an alternate universe of spirituality. 

Notwithstanding, The Goldfinch is outstanding because a vast majority of the story is engrossing, most of the characters are fun, and the writing is exquisite. You will see The Goldfinch on many “best of 2013” lists, including mine.


  1. I've been holding out on reading this book, but, based on your review, I'm gonna spend the money! Thanks for the detail. I like that your very positive response was qualified with some questions about style, creative license and authorial focus. Reading is such an interpretive act and specific reaction helps so much more than the hyped banter printed on the book cover. Jane