Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is easily one of the best books I’ve read in contemporary fiction…
…and yet I struggled to give it five stars. I will get to the points that gave me pause in a moment, but first for the praise.
The writing in this heavy volume is nothing short of beautiful. As a good friend once said to me, writing is not about stringing words together in a grammatically-correct way. It’s about perception. Tartt’s perception of intense emotional situations, of humankind’s propensity to question its existence, and the internal struggles between our selfish desires and our selfless mandates, is painted in glorious Technicolor. If you are in love with words, you will be overindulged in this text. So many beautiful passages abound.
Characterization in this novel is refreshingly accomplished. While the story isn’t chock-full of what I would deem “likeable” characters, each one is drawn and developed thoroughly. Every big-city stereotype is represented, but given a depth atypical of clichéd personalities. There are no obvious “good” or “bad” guys, but layers of good and bad traits and choices, and the questions they raise, along with the realities they represent, are so much more valuable and interesting to dissect that it is easily forgotten that you don’t really like them in the first place.
This is true with the character of Theo Decker. The reader is so engrossed in Theo’s thought processes, so lost in his life struggles, so filled with hope for him to overcome, that it isn’t until the story is over that the long hours of reflection conclude that he wasn’t really a good or likeable guy. But that wasn’t really the point of the story, to like Theo, or to like anybody else but the main character…which is The Goldfinch.
Goldfinches have been used throughout art history as symbols of freedom and salvation from as far back as the late Middle Ages. These birds are often seen in paintings of Mary and Jesus, with a baby Jesus holding a goldfinch. (Click here for a more thorough study of the symbolic use of goldfinches in art, if you’re interested). I have read that it took Tartt more than a decade to write this book, and so I must assume that everything in it is deliberate: the use of such a symbol, the juxtaposition of the salvation portrayed by the painting and the nihilism espoused by Theo.
It has been said by critics and reviewers that Tartt’s book has a Dickensian feel and also lends itself to the influences of Dostoyevsky. Both of those authors being two of my favorites, I can see their influence on Tartt’s writing, but I submit that if Tartt’s novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ orphan tales, then the main character is, in fact, the painting itself.
Throughout the tale the painting speaks to the characters, affecting them, pleading with them to survive. It is an orphaned painting, fighting for survival through centuries of harrowing violence, and it bewitches everyone who sees it in the story, from Theo’s mom to Hobie, to Theo, to Boris, and onto all it passes through, always on that fragile cusp between preservation and destruction. It is the motivator of the novel. It is what progresses the story and is what causes the greatest amount of anxiety throughout the tale. While the reader hopes for a happy ending for Theo, it hopes it more for The Goldfinch. And if the bird itself is true to its allegorical role, it is the hope of salvation and/or liberation (either in the Biblical sense or not) that every character in this book is trying to preserve.
There is a great amount of dedication to detail of art and furniture restoration in this book, which has been a bane to other readers’ experiences, but I believe it plays into the heart of this story, which is the relationship between mortal man and immortal beauty. It is an almost-parasitic, yet loving, relationship with each needing the other to exist and thrive.
As a philosophical piece of work or an example of masterful prose, the book was outstanding, but I believe that anyone reading this novel purely for entertainment value will be distressed, and maybe even bored. The plot began and ended well, but the middle sagged laboriously, at times. The endless trudging through drug use was a bit tedious after the first few experiences. The employment of Dickens’ favored “happy coincidence” was fine, but did not make for an impressive wrap-up of the storyline, and came off as a bit lazy for an otherwise intelligently-written book.
I am not a personal fan of overt pontificating as a means of ending a story. I am much more of the mind to allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions and make his/her own interpretations with respect to the lessons or morals. So, the last chapter of Theo’s waffling on life and death and beauty and illusion, etc. was a bit annoying for me.
Lastly, a personal pet peeve of mine is when any non-native writer writes about Las Vegas. This isn’t significant enough to take away from my experience with the book, just, like I said, more of a pet peeve as I happen to be a native of Las Vegas. I won’t insert a long list of inaccuracies as I think that would detract from the rest of this review, but this is the only platform I have to air my grievances, so there you go.
At the end of a very long contemplation about this book I decided to rate it a five. The good points were just too damn good not to.