The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, Oct. 22nd, 2013)-Sometimes it’s good for a reader to go outside of their comfort zone a little. Take me for example: most of what I read fits into the speculative fiction and mystery categories, and while I do venture outside of those genres, it happens less than I would like it to. I read A Secret History a long time ago and when I saw Donna Tartt had a new one coming out, I thought I’d give it a go. As it happens, I’m very glad that I did!
The Goldfinch is, at its core, a coming of age story about a boy, 13 year old Theo Decker, who lives with his mother in New York, and although they struggle, he adores her and she’s really his anchor, especially since his father, a troubled and mercurial man, abandoned them both, seemingly without a thought. During a visit to a museum one day, there is a terrible explosion, which Theo survives, but his mother does not. Theo spends his last moments among the rubble with an elderly man who was there with his young niece Pippa. Theo is urged by this man, as he lay dying, to take a small painting called The Goldfinch, which was unharmed in the blast, and it’s this painting that will shape much of Theo’s life from then on.
Theo finds himself utterly lost after his mother’s death, and with no family to claim him (or so he thinks), he goes to live with a friend, Andy Barbour, and his family. Soon, however, his father turns up to claim him, and he’s whisked off to Vegas where his father and his girlfriend make their home. He begins a friendship with a boy named Boris, whose father is as volatile as Theo’s, and in fact, this friendship will be one of the most defining of his life. A note on Boris: Boris is as feral, and even worldly (as much as a teen can be) as they come, with a downright scary father, and is a teenage alcoholic. Drugs aren’t out of the question either, and Theo becomes a casual addict himself. However, keep in mind that these boys are pretty much left to fend for themselves, and without each other, things might have gone very differently. Eventually, after tragedy hits again, Theo heads back to New York and into the home of a kind and gentle man, Hobie, that had a hand in his care after his mother’s death. With The Goldfinch always in the back of Theo’s thoughts, and the window to return it long gone, the painting becomes very much like the dead body that someone has hidden away, and with it, a life lived in near constant paranoia. He loses himself in antique furniture restoration and sales, and obsesses over the girl, now a woman, he loves above all things, Pippa. And always waiting in the wings is The Goldfinch.
Don’t worry, matters concerning The Goldfinch will eventually come to a head ,a rather shocking one actually, but the meat of this novel is in the journey. Theo’s narration is at once meandering and immediate, and as tortured as he is, and about as damaged as they come, he’s also endearing in his weaknesses. In the midst of tragedy, he’s able to find beauty in things like the curve of a beautifully constructed chair and the magic of fine art, and he’s sometimes painfully introspective.
There will be many that think that the book is a little long in the tooth (it is, at almost 800 pages), or that the prose wanders a little too much (sometimes, it does), however, I found Theo’s story fascinating, sad, strangely uplifting, and ultimately impossible to take my eyes from. And as bad as things get (oh, they do, they really do), The Goldfinch is, in the end, not only an effective coming of age story, but also a love story about friendship, art, family, and what we do with our lives during the short time that we are on Earth. Intricately researched (you’ll learn quite a bit about furniture restoration, and somehow the author makes it interesting), and sometimes luminous, The Goldfinch is a big, bold ode to art, beauty found in the everyday, loss, and survival. I was undeniably swept away by this one, no doubt about it.