Book Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is available in bookstores tomorrow.

Thirteen year old Theo Decker likes to watch people. Certaicv_the_goldfinchn interesting characters catch his eye and he finds himself wondering about, even obsessing over their lives – what they eat, where they live, what they keep in their bedside drawers. He’s not sure this obsessing is normal, or even healthy, but it does save his life.

Visiting an art exhibition at the Met with his mother, on an impulse to escape the rain, Theo spots a girl about his own age: red-haired, thin, carrying a flute-case. She is accompanied by an old man, possibly her grandfather, and something about the two so intrigues Theo that he follows them back into a gallery instead of going to the gift shop as he had intended. When a bomb explodes just outside the gift shop, Theo escapes the worst of the blast, though many around him are not so lucky. Coming to, trapped by rubble, Theo finds himself near the old man, who has been severely injured and is drifting in and out of consciousness and delirium. With his last gurgling breaths, the old man urges Theo to escape and to take two things – a gold signet ring, and a painting from the exhibition, The Goldfinch.

One of the few surviving works of Fabritius (right), who was himself killedCarel_Fabritius_-_Zelfportret and most of his works destroyed by an explosion in a gunpowder factory in Delft, the eponymous Goldfinch, along with the ring, and the red-haired girl, Pippa, will shape the course of the next decade or more of Theo’s life.

Fans of Tartt’s two previous novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, will not be disappointed by this, her third. In a similar vein to The Secret History, the story opens with adult Theo in some sort of predicament in Amsterdam, and then spends the next 600-odd pages showing us how he came to that point.  Not a “who-dunnit” as such, the story is woven through with intrigue, a cast of beautifully flawed characters and, ever present, The Goldfinch.

Thirteen-year-old Theo’s formative teenage years are hardly stable so it’s little surprise that he battles with his own sense of right and wrong throughout the book as events conspire to draw him into a criminal underworld of art theft and forgery.  Ideas of right and wrong and the huge greyness in between weave through the story, and this, I think, is the key to the book. It is summed up nicely by one of my favourites of the cast of wonderful characters – Boris, Theo’s school friend and provocateur, who says near the end of the book: “What if maybe…bad can sometimes come from good actions? where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?” (page 745)

My only gripe was with the last few pages of the book where Theo falls into exposition, and (it felt like to me) explains the metaphor of the preceding 700-odd pages. Perhaps Tartt didn’t quite trust her readers to understand what she was trying to say, but I felt like it was an unnecessarily drawn out and slightly dull ending to a punchy, intriguing book. I would have preferred the book to finish at the end of page 758, but perhaps others will find satisfaction in the explanations of the final 13 pages.

Tartt has famously quoted William Styron, who “said, when he was about my age, that he realised he had about five books in him, and that was OK. I think I have about the same number. Five,”  spurning the idea that it is necessary to rush out book after book.  There were ten years between The Secret History and The Little Friend; twelve between that and The Goldfinch, not because of any breakdown or malaise but simply because, she says, they take a long time to write. Although I suspect it will be other long wait, I am certainly looking forward to her next offering.

Oh, and for those of you who (like I was) are curious, the painting and the story of its artist’s demise are true; the explosion at the Met and subsequent events are not.

Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408704950