The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has been eleven years in the making. And I have no clue how to objectively and coherently review it. There exists so much in these 771 pages. There were things I loved and things I didn’t. What is perfectly clear, however, is how very, very much I enjoyed everything about this book, including its weaknesses.
When Theo Decker is thirteen, a bomb explodes inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC where he and his mother are killing a couple of hours before a parent/teacher conference. Theo’s mom, along with many others, is killed. Theo is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he has a very strange conversation with an older gentleman – clearly dying of his wounds – who gives him a ring, some cryptic information, and convinces Theo to leave the museum with a tiny painting, The Goldfinch. So begins his long, Dickensian journey into adulthood clasped to the stolen piece of art.
What stood out most to me about The Goldfinch was how we all chain ourselves to people, places, objects, the past and how that affects our future. Also, Tartt is writing about art in its many forms. Combining those two themes gets you to the Dickens comparison. So many of The Goldfinch’s characters are a slave to their own artistic endeavors – Hobie and his restoration, Pippa and her music – and arguably, Donna Tartt and her writing. Familiar books such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations were woven throughout The Goldfinch and gave life to each character. It would be ridiculous to think Tartt didn’t do this on purpose and for a very specific reason. I believe it’s her way of showing how she’s chained to past literary giants. Consider this quote:
“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.”
It’s up to us, the readers, to decide whether this particular literary endeavor is bad or good. I’m leaning towards good – very damn good.
Tartt is the master at pacing. This chunky giant flies by faster than you want it to. I physically forced myself to set it aside, hoping to draw out the ending so I could savor her prose and imagery before the next decade of waiting. What always amazes me is how she can take such a seemingly mundane image – like the beginning of a rainstorm – and write it in such a way that surprises me. Instead of looking to the leaking sky, she forces our eyes down to the brown stains dampening the cement sidewalks. That’s an image I love to watch play out on my own front sidewalk during spring rain showers. In this way, her writing feels alive, like it has its very own heartbeat.
It would be remiss of me, however, to pretend The Goldfinch is beyond criticism. Readers who hate Dickens and his long-winded ways will more than likely get bogged down at times. Tartt loves her tangential meanderings. I suppose some readers will also prefer Theo’s childhood to his adulthood (or vice versa). Other heavily cloaked themes running through Tartt’s story are mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, and drug abuse that can make the characters hardly loveable. All of these faults I barely noticed but can see how others would. The only thing that truly irked me was the tendency to do something that bothers me in first person narration – the ‘if I had only known then’ bits. But I forgive her.