18. ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

I bought The Goldfinch in an airport. It’s not the first time I’ve stress-shopped in the lead up to getting on a plane, and with approximately 16 hours in the air ahead of me my anxiety was sky-high (pun!).

I had a vague idea that I would bury myself in this book all the way home and the flight would just whizz by. HA. I didn’t even open it until a couple of weeks later. And now that I have finally read it, I have pretty mixed feelings.

[SOME SPOILERS AHEAD]

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Theo Decker lives with his mum in an apartment in New York. His father has left and the pair are surviving without any financial assistance from him. One day, Theo and his mother go to an art gallery, inadvertently putting themselves right in the middle of a sudden and unexpected tragedy that will change the course of Theo’s entire life.

Theo’s mother is killed when a bomb goes off in the gallery and Theo, in his dazed state, steals a painting of a tiny goldfinch, painted by Fabritius. This painting stays with him throughout his life, as he moves cities, makes and loses friends and eventually establishes himself as a crooked antiques dealer.

There isn’t a plot as such in this novel. It’s more sprawling than that, more of an epic bildungsroman. Don’t expect a tight story arc; Theo feels more like he is at the whim of random fate, and he drifts here and there without much of a clue about what to do. For most of the novel Theo doesn’t seem to have much control over his life – it isn’t until the end that he takes some kind of positive action (or rather, positive lack of action) – and it’s quite fascinating to read the chaotic ramblings of a child displaced by tragedy and trying to cling onto any form of normality. Tartt is talented at making the reader sympathise with Theo, especially since a lot of the time he is a pretty awful person. It’s because we have seen his roots that we don’t fully blame him for his actions.

I’d seen this book all over the internet and bookshops for probably about a year before I finally bought it. I’m glad I did, but I must say I didn’t love it. Strangely, I did find it quite hard to put down – it was pleasing to delve into such a long, complex story – but I didn’t think it was really deserving of its Pulitzer. There’s something Dickensian about the writing style, but it can descend into monotony, featuring long lists of objects and repeated thoughts. (The phrase ‘punch-drunk’, for example, is repeated so often it becomes jarring.) Plenty of what happens isn’t very believable and the ending feels pretty contrived. As for the closing pages, they are more of a philosophical essay about beauty, love and death which, whilst well-written, feels a bit trite and sickly. It’s a good book, I enjoyed it, but I think it’s been hyped up a little more than it deserves.

“A really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.”

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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