The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

started: January 10, 2018 | finished: January 27, 2018

Usually, I would stick pretty close with the book’s own synopsis, however, that might have been this book’s only downfall. The blurb on the inner flap really didn’t match with the inner contents of the book, but I’ll get more into that in a bit.

As for the synopsis—this is a book about grief. You can dress it up however you like, but death, memory, and grief are the key ideas behind this book. After our lead character, 13 year old Theo, loses his mother, he finds himself illegally in the possession of The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius depicting a goldfinch who is chained to his perch. Not knowing how to return the painting without getting into trouble, but also not wanting to let go of it, Theo carries it with him as he moves from home to home where he is looked after by people who mean well, but who ultimately can’t give him what he needs to move forward. Through out his childhood and into his early adulthood, this painting is one of the few things that pulls Theo forward and keeps him from being swallowed by his own grief.

For the most part, I was consistently entertained by this book. I think the only time that it really lost me was the Amsterdam section, though it wasn’t too bad. I think this might have been because action might not be Tartt’s strong suit. Everything else I enjoyed thoroughly, however, I love slow, quiet books, so, if that’s not what you’re interested in, then you might want to skip this one, because, for the most part, it is slow and it is quiet.

I have very mixed feelings about the story and how it was written. On the one hand, I really did love this story what with my weakness for orphans, dead mothers, and people learning how to live after tragedy. I liked the way that Tartt used the dead mother trope as well as the “evil” stepmother trope. It was also refreshing to see an orphan story where not every single home was abusive. Even though I was taken out of the story a bit with the whole Amsterdam side quest, I do see its purpose in the over all story (kind of) and I was won back over with Theo’s return to New York.

However, like I said earlier, what is promised on the inner flap is very misleading to what is actually delivered. While the inner flap isn’t wrong, it’s just leaving a hell of a lot out. I wouldn’t normally do this, but, in this case, I can’t really think of a better way to explain what I’m trying to say. So, this is the official blurb:

“Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.”

The first paragraph, leaving out the “ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art” bit, summarizes the first 200 pages. The second paragraph, including the “art underworld” bit, doesn’t come in until page 643, page 529 if I’m being generous. That’s a good 300-400 pages of story that has nothing to do with Theo’s “strange new home on Park Avenue,” “the underworld of art,” or “the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.” While I did enjoy that 300-400 pages, I couldn’t help but feel this underlining hum of tension the whole time I was reading it, wondering when this underworld and danger was going to come into play and that is really unfortunate, because I can’t help but think that it kept me from fully enjoying this book on the first read through. I will most likely read it again at some point, but, like I said, I enjoy those slow, quiet stories and I can see how someone who doesn’t would be really disappointed with this book.

I had read a lot of people saying that the final 50 pages should have been taken out or heavily edited, and, while I don’t agree with 50 pages, I would say the last 10, maybe 20, pages were too philosophical and winded to the point where I started drifting a bit. I would have ended it with Theo and Hobie talking in the kitchen, but, at the same time, I can see what Tartt was aiming for.

I will say this though, I would have absolutely nixed that media-res opening and began with the second section of the first chapter instead. I mean, you can’t really tell me that “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years” is a better opening line than “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” Seriously, that second one gives me chills, not to mention it encompasses the overall feel of the story so much better.

Character is clearly one of Tartt’s strengths. There is not a single character in this story who feels lackluster or one dimensional. Even the tertiary characters feel like real people Tartt has run into on the street. If you look at the reviews on goodreads, there is a general consensus that Boris, Theo’s Ukrainian transplant high school friend, is the most interesting character in the book. While I do agree, he is interesting, I had a hard time loving him the way everyone else seems to. Admittedly, this has nothing to do with Tartt’s writing, in fact, it may be a testament to her writing that she so deftly transported me back to high school when I had friends who were very much like Boris: charismatic, likable, and larger than life with a self-destructive streak, a dark home life, and a whirlwind of chaos constantly on their heels. They have big hearts and care about you, but can also be selfish in the way that they believe wholeheartedly that they know better than you and what is best for you. Every time that Boris talked over Theo or changed the subject so as not to tell him everything or refused to listen to what Theo wanted (or needed) in that moment put me right back in that place of being hushed because “I know what’s good for you.” It also made me frustrated at Theo for falling into Boris’ spell, despite knowing that it’s an easy spell to fall under. I enjoy reading about Boris, but, if I met him in person, I would absolutely keep him at arm’s length.

And that brings me to Theo’s character, I was so constantly frustrated with Theo and his refusal to speak up or tell the people in his life what he wanted or needed. This sounds like a negative, but the truth is, in literary fiction, this is, in my opinion, a good thing. With literary stories, there is rarely an external antagonist. Often times, the protagonist is their own antagonist, standing in their own way and keeping them from being the best that they can be. This is what I love about literary fiction and is one of my criteria for categorizing a book as such. Though, there is a case for Theo never actually conquering his inner antagonist, but sometimes that’s just how life works.

If I had to say who was the best character in the book, I would honestly say Hobie. I loved him and wanted so much more of him. But, I also have a weakness for giant teddy bears who live so much in their own heads that they sometimes miss out on what’s going on around them or try their absolute damnedest to see the absolute best in those around them.

Tartt has a beautiful and fluid writing style that I absolutely adore and admire. Though, at 771 pages, this is a doorstop of a book, there was never a point where I was counting the pages except to decide where I absolutely had to stop if I didn’t want to find myself two hours later still reading and having never gotten up to eat or work or sleep. There’s a level of nihilism to her writing that works with this story. Granted, this is the first of her books that I’ve read, so I don’t know if that’s just her writing style or if it’s Theo’s. On that note, I didn’t feel like the whole fictional-character-penning-his-own-memoir trope had a whole lot of pay off here. I can see what Tartt was going for, but I don’t think it landed all that well. It didn’t, however, ruin the writing for me.

The descriptions were also superb. Having never been to New York or Amsterdam, I saw it all. Tartt has a way of describing with intention. Each description is attached to a feeling or a memory which makes each item or place much more meaningful and tactile in the viewing of Theo’s world.

(rounded down for goodreads)

In the end, I really did enjoy this book. I could have done without the first and final sections, but everything in between was great, even if I wasn’t properly prepared for it. I definitely think The Goldfinch deserves a reread, maybe even a purchase so it can sit on my shelf next to White Oleander, the other book that makes me feel like a monster for loving so much.

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