Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Publication: Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 2013
Genre: Fiction
Setting: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam
Description: On their way to what will be an unpleasant school meeting about Theo’s bad attitude, he and his mother stop at the Met to visit a Dutch Masters exhibit. His father disappeared several months ago, and usually, their outings are a source of pleasure for 13-year-old Theo but this ends in tragedy as his mother is killed. Although his good manners – and theirs – mean that he is temporarily taken in by an affluent classmate’s family, Theo does not fit it and none of the adults suddenly thrust into his life know what to do with him. He becomes fixated on an encounter he had at the Met and the small painting of The Goldfinch by Fabritius he rescued when he escaped, and he is both afraid to tell anyone it is in his possession and as unwilling to give it up as Gollum. His life becomes an urgent attempt to merely get by, as he recognizes acutely nothing will ever be the same and there is no one who understands him well enough to get him back on any coherent track.

My Impression: This labyrinth of a book begins on an ordinary day (which, of course, reminded me that 9/11 was a beautiful sunny day in NYC) and soon takes Theo and his mother to the winding halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is such a New York thing to pop into the Met for an hour – an out of towner would probably not want to spend the time or money to get in or out, but those like Theo’s mother who unerringly know their way around the City are efficient with their time. There are no coincidences in this book, only carefully thought-out serpentine events. However, the reader is too mesmerized to object until afterward, when trying to recover.

Almost his mother’s last words are describing to Theo how the artist Fabritius was killed in a powder explosion and nearly all his paintings were destroyed with him:
"It was a famous tragedy in Dutch history,” my mother was saying. “A huge part of the town was destroyed.”


“The disaster at Delft. That killed Fabritius. Did you hear the teacher back there telling the children about it?”

“. . . Fabritius was killed and his studio was destroyed. Along with almost all his paintings, except this one.” She seemed to be waiting for me to say something, but when I didn’t, she continued: “He was one of the greatest painters of his day, in one of the greatest ages of paining. Very very famous in his time. It’s sad though, because maybe only five or six paintings survived, of all his work. All the rest is lost – everything he did.”
Theo’s mother has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about art and Pippa and her uncle (we don’t know them yet, except that Theo noticed them) stand near enough to listen to her, as one sometimes eavesdrops on anyone who sounds like an expert in museums. This scene reminded me of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler where Claudia is trying to soak up knowledge about her artwork.

The Goldfinch has a luminous quality that captures Theo’s imagination but, in addition to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he seems permanently lost, like Fabritius’ paintings. The book is also luminous at times but more often meandering, as is Theo. It is long and complicated and somewhat exhausting. Although I own a copy, I got it from the library as an audiobook and was startled to see there were more than 30 CDs. I listened to the first 11 or 12 while driving, was drawn into the story and a few days ago decided I couldn’t wait until I was back in the car to find out what happened next (acid, as it turned out). I found my hardcover and read the remaining 400+ pages until I was done. While I don’t think this is a masterpiece and definitely felt that some sections were too long, I did find the book extremely compelling.
Part of the Mauritshuis' collection
Things I Liked: Theo was an interesting and unusual character. I am not the target market for books written from a male teen's point of view but I cared about what happened to Theo – at least until Chapter 10, although I wished he had taken Andy’s advice (certainly the best advice he got throughout the book) in Chapter 4 to apply himself and earn a scholarship. In retrospect, I understand that having always drifted, even with a loving parent involved, he wasn’t capable of focusing without one. 

Tartt is a great storyteller and kept my interest until the last section. Perhaps her best character is Theo’s mother, about whom we learn more and more as the book progresses, and my favorites were Hobie and Pippa, but even minor characters like Mr. Barbour or Theo’s social workers are vividly portrayed. Then there are major characters like Boris and Larry Decker: while I accepted that Theo needed a friend, I found it hard to like Boris, although I think he is a brilliant creation, as is Theo’s dreadful father. Larry Decker has so many bad qualities it is hard to pick one but worse than trying to steal from his child is the way he criticizes Theo’s mother and neglects Theo. I was also puzzled about the Deckers’ apartment: who paid the rent while Theo was living with the Barbours?

Things I Disliked: Well, the book was much too long but it would take a more skillful editor than I to cut it down. The Las Vegas section seemed endless and it was almost unbelievable that two teenagers could be as neglected as Theo and Boris without anyone noticing or caring. I suppose the isolation of the neighborhood was also a factor, although I bet the school nurse had her suspicions. I mostly hated the endless descriptions of drinking and drug use. If Tartt hadn’t made me care about Theo, I am not sure I would have finished the book. I was surprised he even had a passport, without an occasion to use it (he had never even been on a plane before he went to Las Vegas). The whole final section, from Theo’s walking out of his engagement party (which should never have taken place) to go to Amsterdam to the bizarre adventures there to strolling back into Hobie’s house a few days after Christmas was too far from the realm of possibility. I was reminded that I felt The Secret History fell apart about 80% of the way through, although I don’t remember why I felt that so strongly.

Source and Other Thoughts: Personal copy (and audiobook from the library). Did you wonder if the painting really existed? My knowledge of the Dutch Masters was more limited than I thought, and I didn’t allow myself to check until I finished reading.  I think it would have worked just as well with an imaginary artist and painting, although it is interesting that The Goldfinch was lost in real life until 1859.  I wish I had seen it when the painting visited the Frick because that is more convenient than going to The Hague!  And was it plausible that Theo would never unwrap the painting in NY after gazing at it so often in Las Vegas?

I didn't realize there is a movie of The Goldfinch!  I will watch it at the end of April when I am caught up although the actor does not look like my vision of young Theo.

Thank you to Lamar who urged me to read this, after it had been languishing in my TBR for years.


Cath said...

Well, that's by far and away the best review of The Goldfinch I've read, Constance. I've not been able to make up my mind about reading it, I love the art connection but reviews have been so mixed, plus I'm not great with a lot of boozing and drug taking in books. I could skim over that I suppose. On the whole are you glad you read it? I liked The Secret History but I definitely did not love it to bits. And there's this, I often find I grow more by reading less than perfect books as long as there's plenty there to keep me thinking and pondering.

CLM said...

I'm definitely glad I read it but it is an unusual book and it was an odd experience starting it as an audiobook and finishing with the hardcover. I hadn't thought about it before but perhaps part of my goal in switching was so I could skim over the drinking and drugs. Shortly after I had started it, my book group met and I suggested we read it for April because I could already tell I would want to discuss it with someone. Alas, most had read it when it came out. It is too bad because some of the best conversations come when people have mixed reactions to a book, so long as they finish it! Thanks for reading my review!

Lark said...

I have to admit, it's the length of this one, and some mixed reviews I've read, that makes me hesitate to pick this one up. And if the story meanders, too...I'm not sure I'd like this one.

Jeanne said...

As I said in my review, I think the novel is a perception challenge. I ended up loving it, although like you and everyone else here in the comments, I found the drug-taking-with-Boris section slow going.

Judy Krueger said...

It never fails to add to my store of reading happiness when another person reads and loves The Goldfinch.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

When I was leaving a prior organization, one of my seniors at work gifted me a card, quoting various sections from Goldfinch. Goldfinch has languished on my TBR too since then. I'm guessing the book is more about some wonderfully worded passages/ human insight, than any main plotline itself. This makes me interested but also wary about the length! The movie is on Amazon Prime, in case you want to do a comparison!

Karen K. said...

I liked this one and read through it in just a couple of days when it first came out. I also have a few quibbles -- why didn't he look at it for years? Why didn't he just anonymously return it? And I remember he had a cell phone at 13, back in the early 2000s when that was pretty uncommon for a kid. I also didn't like he ending, all I remember was Russian mobsters.

I also love the painting and confess I made a special trip to New York just to see the exhibit (I had vacation days to use up or lose, and airline miles, so it wasn't as extravagant as it sounds). The exhibit also included Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, another painting featured in book I loved. Both paintings are absolutely worth seeing, if you're ever in the Netherlands it's worth the side trip to the Mauritshuis, less than an hour by train from Amsterdam.

CLM said...

Karen, I agree that after pulling it out of the pillowcase so often in Las Vegas, it is not convincing he would not have looked at it once before putting it in storage. I think she could have come up with some reason.

Also, if he wrote to Mrs. Barbour and Andy and Hobie and (I think) Pippa from Las Vegas, he should have sent a postcard to his doormen. If he had left the picture back in the storage room (as I wanted him to), I suppose one of them would have had to open it, assuming they even remembered it was his, given they had deliberately not recorded it in the book. Given they did not have his address, who knows what would have happened to the painting?

I don't think going to NYC to see the painting is an extravagant trip! That is one of the reasons people visit New York! I wish I hadn't been so oblivious at the time.

Judy, I definitely didn't love this book but I am still thinking about it, a week after finishing it so that is one of the measures of a good book! I am giving my copy to my sister-in-law although she paled when I told her how long it is. Well, if I had three children, I am sure I would read fewer books.

Lamar F said...

Constance: Thanks for such a thorough and well thought out review (almost like a legal brief!) I agree that this book is compelling but somewhat short of a literary masterpiece. What makes The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby masterpieces and The Goldfinch merely “compelling”? I suppose that’s in the secret sauce. Having said that, I do think that Donna Tartt is one of the best if not the best contemporary American writers, and I cannot wait until her next book which, if her trend continues, should be sometime in the next decade. Thanks again for your review.

Buried In Print said...

Any book this long, I think there's an argument for it to have been shorter. But, I was wholly and completely content to inhabit that world for as long as there were words to read about it. I remember staying in bed way too long on a Sunday morning, keeping the whole family waiting for breakfast while it was assumed that I was "sleeping in", to finish the last few pages and feeling bereft when I was done. I do remember that there were storylines in it that I enjoyed more than others, but I just ambled on and on with all of them. I'd forgotten about the film (maybe because I just didn't think a film that short could contain all that magic) but I will give it a go.

Suzanne | A Novel Project said...

This is an excellent review of one of my favorite books -- although I have to say, it was only my favorite once I reached the end. Most of it made me mad - so many poor choices! so many chances to take a different path! But in the end, I thought it was a beautiful commentary on the truly transformative power of art. Loved reading your thoughts.