The Goldfinch | Donna Tartt | Fiction | 2013
I first came across The Goldfinch whilst browsing for books on Amazon. I loved the title and pretty cover, and took note of the shiny gold badge stamped on the front, indicating it had won the Pulitzer Prize. Sold. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as the summary was short and vague, but whatever initial thoughts I had quickly scattered as I dove into the first chapter.
I’m a little hesitant to say this, but The Goldfinch is probably the most well-written book I’ve ever read. Tartt’s style of writing is so elaborate and descriptive, and as someone who loves detail I admired how rich and intricately-written each scene was. This high level of detail, however, makes the book really long (that and the page count), and it takes some time and patience to work through it.
Whilst the quality of writing is apparent, I was not a fan of the actual story. As an optimist and sucker for happy endings, I was put out by the main character’s bleak outlook and sombre conclusion, which is very much a philosophical reflection. For me though, the writing and story-telling by Tartt were so top-notch that they more than made up for the disheartening perspective and ending.
The Goldfinch is a story about the life of Theodore ‘Theo’ Decker, who’s struck by tragedy at a very young age. This ill-fated catalyst redirects his life’s trajectory into one of theft, depression, lies, reckless behaviour, and even more tragedy. Enticed?
Written as a first person narrative, Theo recounts his tale from when he was a child, up until the present. We begin with a pivotal point in young Theo’s childhood when he unexpectedly loses his mother during a terrorist attack, and gains possession of a small, but famous painting titled ‘The Goldfinch’. The weight of his mother’s death and ownership of the painting underlie many of Theo’s decisions and actions, which ultimately lead him down a less-than-fortunate road.
Due to the accident, Theo suffers from PTSD and heavy depression whilst growing up. He uses drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, but as expected they only seem to exacerbate his problems and symptoms. In addition to that, it’s almost as if everything he loves, he can’t have, or is taken away from him.
Because of the circumstances of how he obtained ‘The Goldfinch’, Theo closely associates the painting with his late, beloved mother and develops an unhealthy obsession towards it. Unfortunately, as the artwork is a highly-valued, stolen good, the painting, along with a few bad influences and influencers, pull Theo into a world of crime he’s unprepared for.
Thoughts (contains spoilers)
When I first read the short description on the back of the book, I was expecting a story about an art thief and his adventures in evading authorities and manoeuvring through illegal markets. How wrong I was! Whilst The Goldfinch has some of that, the majority of the book is about Theo’s internal struggles and emotions as he moves throughout life and copes with change. The depth of his analysis and paths he takes are fascinating, and the way everything comes full circle in the end is both satisfying and a little frustrating.
As I stated earlier, The Goldfinch is probably the most well-written book I’ve read so far, but the actual story was not my cuppa tea. Whilst reading, I kept on waiting for Theo’s life to get better, but it never did. He was rarely happy, and when he was, it was extremely short lived. Throughout the entire book I felt sorry for Theo because things would have been so different had his mother survived, and had he never come across that painting.
That said, Theo himself (present day) wondered whether events play out they way they do due to chance, or due to personal natures. Theo’s final reflection on morality, the subjectivity of right and wrong, and what constitutes a ‘good’ life is sobering-ly thoughtful. It’s a sad, but beautiful epiphany for him that life is a struggle and there isn’t always an upside or silver-lining.
Is it for you?
This book is not a ‘light read’, but it’s wonderfully written and challenged my way of thinking. I would absolutely recommend this book to others, even if you have to read it in chunks with large breaks in between.