Ah, The Goldfinch…
This has to be one of the books I waited the longest to read. Got it on my Kindle when it first came out, was a bit put off by the hype, started plowing into the initial museum-explosion section (where 13-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker is trapped in the Met after a bombing that kills his beloved mother and takes off with the titular painting), found myself very bored, found the writing pretentious. Stopped reading, dismayed.
And then I went back recently, picked it up again and found, to my surprise… that once Theo moved in with his school chum Andy and the wealthy Barbour family, the writing perked up, the book gripped me, and I swept through the rest of it as fast as I could. I was particularly taken by the Las Vegas section where Theo is dragged off to live by his scoundrel of a father, who gambles for a living, and takes up with a young Ukrainian/Australian, Boris, who is even more rootless and unparented than Theo himself. Theo and Boris take lots of drugs, steal for kicks, they experiment sexually… Donna Tartt’s writing here is superb, showing the boy’s world opening up rather than shutting down.
But back in claustrophobic New York, torn away from Boris by his father’s timely, or untimely, death, depending on how you look at it, Theo hits a bit of a slump that seems like it will last the rest of the novel. Still taking plenty of prescription drugs, he ends up as a salesman of antiques in Greenwich Village, some of them fakes, while his virtuous partner Hobie, a reassuring father figure, restores antiques in the back of the shop.
Unlike many of the reviewers on Amazon, who loved the first, “arty” section of the book, and hated the philosophical, open-ended ending and the scenes in Amsterdam, I found that Tartt exploded her own pretensions by driving a bus through her own literary novel. Theo’s carefully constructed world “explodes” again at the end, and we’re led to believe that at least he is taking his life in his hands…somewhat. (Mostly by not killing himself, ironically.) But what would have really pleased me would have been a recontinuation of the relationship with Boris. These are two characters who seem to want to be together, no matter how much their author wants to dub them as straight, on different tracks, etc.
To sum up, I’m very glad I read The Goldfinch! It’s a nineteenth-century novel at heart; it luxuriates in its own length. Theo’s “bad” friend Boris ends up giving him closure on the biggest wound of his life outside of his mother’s death, his ownership of the famous painting, which has become a terrible burden. Once he realizes that he hasn’t even had the painting in his possession for years—a delicious twist that Tartt pulls off well—Theo’s life begins to change.
And for a book that says over and over again that people can’t change, Tartt does offer a little smidgen of hope for Theo. But it IS a long, dark and sad book, no doubt. Those who have suffered loss and who have PTSD (and Tartt does not shy away from labeling Theo this way) will understand and appreciate the bleakness. Theo’s female love interests are flimsy and brittle. Without the tragicomic character of Boris to the rescue, then, this book would have been a terrible slog. Luckily, Tartt allows that relationship to become central, and, to my mind, it saves the novel.
The Goldfinch is still available on Kindle for a very reasonable $6.99. though I wouldn’t mind also owning a copy of the physical book now.
For more information about how critics are divided on The Goldfinch’s literary merit, I found a Vanity Fair article here (followed by thought-provoking comments).