This review is a little long, but there’s a surprise at the bottom of the post! If you don’t have time for reading, at least scroll down there. . .
The first thing you’ll notice about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is that it’s a big book, 771 pages worth. If you’ve got the hardbound edition it’s upwards of 2 pounds to hold in your hands while supposedly having a leisurely read. So heed this advice: spring for the e-book, it’s just easier. What’s more, this story is an edge-of-your-seat potboiler, so don’t think you’re going to tackle it while you’re also prepping for some big project at work, or hosting Thanksgiving dinner next week for 27 people, or something like that. For this novel, clear the boards!
Now regarding spoilers: I will endeavor not to include too much, but I am going to tell you what happens in the beginning. It’s a bit of a complex set-up, but don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you much you won’t see in the movie trailer or read on the dust jacket. If you don’t want to know anything, just drop down three paragraphs. Ready, set, go!
At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Theo Decker, late 20s, our narrator, who is stuck in Amsterdam for reasons we will not be privy to for another 640 pages. Quickly Theo heads back in time to tell us about the day his mother died. Theo, the only child of a single mother, was at that time 13 years old, suspended the day before from his private school. On the day of her death, he and his mother are headed across New York City toward his school where they have been summoned to a meeting with the principal to discuss Theo’s behavior. To kill time and get out of the rain, they duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a beloved sanctuary for both of them. She guides Theo to a special exhibit of Dutch masters on loan from Europe, specifically to show him one of her childhood favorites, The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Theo likes it too, but he’s diverted by a striking red-haired girl around his own age who is carrying a flute case, accompanied by a man who appears to be her grandfather. Mom tells Theo she wants to take a second look at another painting and that she will meet him in the gift shop. She dashes off. Then it happens: an explosion caused by a terrorist-planted bomb.
Theo awakens to smoke, debris, dead bodies around him. He manages to stand, unsure what’s happening, having trouble even remembering where he is. Suddenly he sees movement: the old man, the assumed grandfather of the red-haired girl, lying on the ground dying, signals to Theo for assistance, and Theo staggers over. It is this old man, in the last moment of his life, who urges Theo to take The Goldfinch to safety, and then, in a fateful dramatic gesture, he gives Theo his ring, and tells him an address.
Theo has a horrendous time, crawling through the rubble, over fallen beams and body parts looking for a way out. He wanders a labyrinthian course, disoriented, ears ringing from the loud blast, passing through familiar galleries into many he’s never seen before, finding a secret passage into long, carpeted office corridors. The description is excruciatingly detailed and lengthy, and yet I was enthralled by every bit of information. Theo’s struggle to find an exit had a certain familiarity to me: it seemed as if Tartt were telling a medieval tale of a spiritual journey or even a knight’s quest, newly commissioned by the dying old man, carrying the painting as the talisman of his lady, his mother, whom we already know is dead, because Theo has told us that this is the story of the day she died. But 13-year-old Theo doesn’t know it yet, and that’s breaking our hearts.
It is the memory of this gut-wrenching search for daylight that I held onto as I embarked on the journey through this imposing tome of a book. For doesn’t a quest motif carry a promise of healing, perhaps even redemption? Because, seriously, Tartt leads us into some very dark spaces, and many times I was ready to despair that she was taking us to a tragic end for poor Theo. But I’m jumping ahead.
The novel takes on a picaresque tone as Theo relates his tale of survival, endeavoring to avoid a foray into the foster care system. He leads us across varied terrain and introduces us to surprising characters. There’s an exile in the desert, and a desperate cross-country escape by Greyhound Bus, carrying the ever-present stolen painting and a tiny dog called Popper. Dare I call the novel Dickensian? Pulitzer Prize winning reviewer Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times embraced this word in her review. But then I read a 2014 article from Vanity Fair in which journalist and screen writer Evgenia Peretz wondered at the critical backlash to this award-winning novel, relating that top members of the literati had been scolding their colleagues for rewarding a book that they framed as essentially a children’s story, unserious, and certainly not good enough to be called Dickensian! Jeez, I dunno. There’s an orphan, a twisty plot, and wildly colorful characters—is the bar to comparisons with Charles Dickens really a lot higher than that? Even people in the book are telling Theo that his friend Boris resembles the Artful Dodger. Makes sense to me, though I will admit I haven’t actually read Oliver Twist; I’m relying on the movie musical for my intel.
By the way—I know I’m going off on a wild tangent here–but did you know that Davy Jones (before the Monkees) played the Artful Dodger in the original Broadway cast of Oliver? And here’s the kicker: Jones coincidently appeared with said cast to sing “I’d Do Anything” on the Ed Sullivan Show the very same night the Beatles appeared in New York City for the first time! It’s true; I learned this on NPR. You can watch it on YouTube.
Okay, moving on.
I strongly recommend this Vanity Fair article because beyond the speculation on The Goldfinch, Peretz relates a lively debate on what constitutes serious literature these days. There are those who insist that the deciding factor must be a sense of reality and authenticity, whereas The Goldfinch has a fairy tale quality, and is based on an improbable premise. Others say this slavish devotion to realism is passé. With my love of magical realism and fantasy, I’ve got to root for the latter position. But when you’re looking for a good read, what does it matter?
Here’s a link to the Vanity Fair article: It’s Tartt–But Is It Art?
So right now I’ll stay neutral on this debate about the book’s merits as serious literature. I do suspect Tartt deliberately threw in more than a few literary allusions—to amuse herself or us?—who knows? Of course Dickens would top that list. I myself was reminded of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield tooling around New York City, riding in cabs, plaintively inviting every driver to stop in a bar with him for a drink and conversation, a poignant picture of an adolescent desperate for adult company and guidance. In my mind, that’s Theo. At the heart of The Goldfinch is a child who has suffered a terrible trauma, wandering through life, attempting to grow up with untreated PTSD, while the adults in his world are simply inadequate to help him. It’s really not till we reach the last third of the book that we begin to wonder at the reliability of our narrator, when the adult Theo himself begins to realize how damaged he may be.
And now, just to amuse myself, I have to confess that I’m wondering whether Tartt actually modeled The Goldfinch on the Harry Potter series! The aforementioned Artful Dodger-like, street-smart Boris even calls his bespectacled, naïve friend “Potter,” and the similarities are readily apparent. The awful murder of Theo’s beloved mother, not by an evil wizard, but by a terrorist is the first clue. Also (and I do think this is hilarious) in my pseudo-term-paper analysis, the Barbour family could be some kind of dystopian Weasley clan. Poor Ron (i.e. Andy Barbour) doesn’t fare well here, and younger sister Ginny re-created as Kitsey Barbour, has a cold, even sinister edge to her, yet she still ends up with the guy, doesn’t she? But where this comparison of mine really shines is when we get to the relationship of Theo with the friendly giant Hobie (stand-in for Hagrid), who treats furniture like beloved pets (much as Hagrid loves to collect fanciful creatures). It is these scenes in the seemingly magical enclave of antiques that are my favorite part of the book. Hobie is no Dumbledore, no wise and powerful wizard/guru/sensei. But he is the perfect Hagrid: flawed, a bit befuddled, sometimes incompetent, yet he truly cares for Theo. He is the closest thing to a mentor/parental figure that Theo has.
I do heartily recommend this book. Let me condense my assessment: it’s a good read and a great story. Tartt is a wonderful painter, supplying us with surprising metaphor and lively detailed description. But oh, about 500 pages in, I was growing impatient and really wanted her to get on with it. Coupled with the tortuous suspense surrounding the mystery of the painting, all that wonderful detail I loved at the beginning now seemed extraneous, and I was wishing that Tartt’s editors had forced her to tighten stuff up a bit. Particularly at the end when the narration has returned to Amsterdam. Please spare us the descriptions of food and alcohol and drugs and vomit and just tell us what’s happened with—well, no spoilers. Trust me, it’s excruciating, we’ll let it go at that.
Do we get that healing and redemption I longed for at the beginning? In a way. This was another of the complaints lodged in that Vanity Fair article. The denouement, the traditionalists say, was anticlimactic and a meaningful message merely tacked on. I think that’s fair. But as a reader I was relieved and satisfied at the end. It returned us to a more realistic world, where debts must be paid, and romance navigated delicately. Maybe it wasn’t as magical or artful as one might have hoped, but yeah, well, there you go. That’s life.
And now, because I’m not that serious a book reviewer, here’s a little treat for all the Monkees fans out there.