The Goldfinch / Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is a novel that will evoke a strong reaction in readers. They may be either dazzled by Tartt’s verbosity or completely put off by it. Even more likely, they will experience both emotions. This was certainly my reaction, especially in the book’s early chapters. Containing elements of tragedy, angst, and self-deprecating musing, it also has an escalating tension that finally erupts into thriller action territory. With its detailed descriptions, this novel has everything but the kitchen sink. One cannot help but wonder whether, like Charles Dickens, Tartt was being paid by the word. Yet once I got used to the author’s occasional plodding storytelling, with its detours and overabundance of detail, I found myself eager to read on.

Theodore “Theo” Decker tells the story in retrospective first-person narration. As the book opens, he is a thirteen-year-old boy living in New York City with his mother. His father, an alcoholic and a gambler, had walked out on the family a year before. In the first chapter, Theo and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, which includes her favorite painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch. This painting proves to be the story’s MacGuffin, the thread that stitches together the book’s circuitous plot. While inside the museum, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and numerous others. Miraculously, Theo, not seriously injured, encounters in the rubble an old, dying man who gives him a ring and a mysterious message. Believing it has something to do with The Goldfinch, Theo takes the painting, and unseen, escapes from the building. And thus the story is set in motion.

It carries the reader through the next eight plus years of Theo’s life, as he goes from traumatized teenager to a young adult haunted by guilt, sadness, and posttraumatic stress. In order to cope, he develops a serious drug habit. Set in three very different cities, New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, Tartt vividly captures their milieux on the page. In the case of New York City, her description is so granular that I felt overwhelmed at times. Theo and the other key characters in this book are not easy to like. Self-absorbed, drug addled, and living a life of privilege, most are presented as narcissistic and childish. Nonetheless, once the story drew me into its meandering maze, I was hooked. As I said, it is a novel that will leave a good many feeling conflicted over its merits. But The Goldfinch is the kind of book that, warts and all, still manages to embed itself into a reader’s long-term memory.

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