The Goldfinch

the goldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

It took me a while to decide to read The Goldfinch.  First of all, it’s nearly 800 pages long.  Secondly, even though the critics loved it, reader reviews were all over the place – the book was either engrossing or tedious, brilliant or absurd, a masterpiece or a total disappointment.  Then it won the Pulitzer Prize.  So, what’s a reader to do?

Read it, of course.

The story begins at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother are viewing an exhibit of Dutch paintings, including one of the few surviving works by Fabritius – The Goldfinch.  The small picture of a bird chained to its perch was the first painting Theo’s mother ever really loved, she explains.  Moments later, a bomb explodes in the museum and she is gone.

In that instant, Theo’s life is forever altered.  Uprooted from his home, he stays for a while with a wealthy school friend, then with his estranged father in Las Vegas.  There he meets Boris, a Ukrainian expat who seems just as lost as Theo.  He eventually returns to New York and finds a home with Hobie, a restorer of antique furniture whose business partner, Welty, was also killed in the museum blast.

Throughout these difficult years – and believe me, they’re difficult for both Theo and the reader – The Goldfinch is Theo’s only constant.  Its existence provides a tenuous connection to his mother and a reason to at least go through the motions of life.  Then one day it goes missing, and Theo is swept into an international search to recover it.

The significance of objects – fine, beautiful things – runs throughout the book.  Objects, after all, are immortal.  They offer solidity and permanence for those who badly need it.  They are also a point of connection for the people who care for them.  According to Hobie, Welty “used to speak of how with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost…” and I wonder if that was Donna Tartt’s aim with The Goldfinch.  Like an artist, she creates exceptionally vivid pictures that immerse the reader in each scene.

Hobie’s house:  “…the dark brown walls, their deep dry texture like cocoa powder, soaked me through and through with a sense of Hobie’s voice and also of Welty’s, a friendly brown that saturated me to the core and spoke in warm old-fashioned tones, so that drifting in a lurid stream of fever I felt wrapped and reassured by their presence…”

Outside Las Vegas:  “…they were covered with scaffolding and grayed with blown sand, with piles of concrete and yellowing construction material out front.  The boarded-up windows gave them a blind, battered, uneven look, as of faces beaten and bandaged.” 

Amsterdam: “…old buildings leaning against each other with a moody, poetic, edge-of-destruction feel, the cobblestoned loneliness of a city that felt – to me, anyway – like a place where you might come to let the water close over your head.”

I felt the descriptive language alone was well worth the price of admission, but many readers did not seem to agree.  A fair number just didn’t like Theo.  Others thought the plot was too long and meandering.  Somehow, I never let go of my impression of Theo as a young boy who lost his mother, and I think this allowed me to remain sympathetic, even during the worst of his bad choices.  And I found myself so deeply absorbed by the storyline that it would actually take a few moments to disengage when real life called.  However, I will concede that the conclusion felt unnecessarily long and rambling.

I can’t promise that every reader will appreciate this book, but if you love language, art and antiques, if you’re not too afraid of the dark side, and…most importantly…if you have the time, I would certainly recommend it.

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