Having massively enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt, reading The Goldfinch was an easy decision. Though the two are incredibly different in subject matter, both novels are, in my opinion, masterfully told stories that really absorbed me.
“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”
In The Goldfinch, Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a bomb explosion in the New York Metropolitan Museum. At just 12 years old he is alive but motherless and, as he struggles through the rubble of the building, he ends up leaving with an incredibly valuable painting titled ‘The Goldfinch’. This painting exists outside the realms of fiction and is the work of Rembrandt’s talented student Fabritius, who died in an explosion a short time after painting The Goldfinch – and here Theo’s life mirrors Fabritius’. Theo is not an intentional thief but in fact seems to almost ‘end up’ with the painting after a sentimental meeting with an old man and his niece, who leaves a lasting impression upon Theo. What follows is a hugely gripping, emotive narrative which follows Theo’s young life right into adulthood.
We see touching elements of Theo’s life before he loses his mother, but the novel mainly focuses on what follows and the way his life is shaped by that single incident. It is interesting to see how every aspect of Theo’s life would have been altered if he had not taken the painting – he ends up living with his failure of a father and father’s girlfriend in Vegas, and falls into a cycle of drugs and alcoholism with new friend Boris.
“… I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
The book is so big – a mammoth 771 pages no less – and so much happens in it that I won’t attempt to try and give even a basic account of the plot (plus I don’t want to give it away for those who read it). However, there are a variety of things I loved about this book which I felt was just so brilliant and definitely one of the best books I’ve ever written.
The first aspect of the book that really drew me in was the beautiful telling of Theo’s life both before and after his mother’s death. I really felt for him as an orphan who even his grandparents didn’t want, as Donna Tartt creates a character that you care so much about. Even his wild friend Boris, who at various points does not seem to be good news for Theo, has a personality that makes you smile despite the often gritty, depressing circumstances both boys are in. Hobie, who ends up taking Theo in, is a truly likeable character which makes a nice change for poor Theo, largely surrounded by destructive, greedy people.
I also loved the way the novel takes the reader to so many places – from Manhattan to Vegas to Amsterdam, the novel never fails to really envelope you in its surroundings, and not just in a way that suggests the author has simply read up a small amount on these places to get the ‘general feel’. No, you really feel like you get to know the settings, adding to the overall enjoyment of the story which touches upon the dark world of death, love, addiction, art, adolescence and urban life, to name but a few.
“…as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”
I truly didn’t want the novel to end, and enjoyed almost every word, but my one criticism would be that there were some points in the story that, in my opinion, could perhaps have been edited down a little. There were just a few small points in the novel where I found myself tempted to skim read over some of the length description – though I didn’t, knowing that I wanted to enjoy every part of it while it lasted.
I would thoroughly recommend reading The Goldfinch, whether you’ve read other novels by Donna Tartt or not – but you have been warned, it’s not a light holiday read!
Have you read The Goldfinch? What did you think of it?