The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt / ★★★★★
Summary: Theo Decker survives a terrible accident that kills his mother, and he escapes the scene with a priceless 17th century painting that she loved. In the ensuing years, Theo bounces from his rich friend’s house, to Las Vegas, to an antique shop in New York, the painting always in his mind. As Theo gets older, the painting, the influences around him, and his own aching heart lead him down increasingly dark paths.
But when I think of you, it’s as if you’ve gone away to sea on a ship – out in a foreign brightness where there are no paths, only stars and sky.
I could not put this book down. The Goldfinch is very dense – nearly 800 pages – and yet I read most of it in about four days. I started out with the audiobook (which is very well done, by the way) but listening to it felt too slow and I was too eager, so I bought a physical copy and spent nearly every free moment I had with my eyes glued to its pages. This book – the story of a boy who loses his mother in a terrible accident, and steals a famous painting – was a terrible disaster that I could not look away from.
Donna Tartt is a master of capturing one’s attention by putting us in the thick of something dark and terrible- and then rewinding back to the beginning so we can find out how we end up there. Right from the start we know that Theo Decker is in Amsterdam, that he is trapped by something dark and terrible he has done with a painting and with the law. Then Tartt rewinds us back to when he is thirteen and living in New York City, on the last day of his mother’s life.
I had no idea what this book was going to be about before I started it, besides that it was about a guy obsessed with a painting. What I didn’t expect was for the majority of this book to be from a young teenager’s point of view. Theo Decker is a deeply flawed, oftentimes sympathetic character, and I think it was essential to meet him as a thirteen year old. We get to know him in his innocence. We see the influences that shape him, how his mother’s death irrevocably changes him and how his father’s alcoholism and attempts at trying to be a good father impacts who he becomes later, the choices he makes, and what he accepts as fate. What I particularly found interesting was that his biological father is offset by a more kindly, understanding and forgiving father figure in Hobie, the gentle antiquer who lost his best friend and business partner in the same tragedy that killed Theo’s mother, and the effect he has on Theo’s life and the choices he makes. The Goldfinch is a coming of age story, and the story of a boy who is thrown into a fate he cannot control, or believe he can change.
The Goldfinch is long and sprawling, and it very character driven, and it’s hard to write a review of it without mentioning Theo’s best friend, Boris. The friendship between Boris and Theo is so extremely layered, unbreakable and terrible and affectionate, born under circumstances in which the adults in charge of them do not take charge. I don’t think that I can ever say that I really liked Boris as a person, but he was a fascinatingly nuanced, exuberant character, especially when contrasted against Theo. He is such a self-sustained trainwreck of a character that Tartt has an affinity for writing- he and Theo both.
And as usual, Tartt has an effortless way of putting down words- her writing is beautiful. This book was rich and colorful and the atmosphere of every place she takes us is so deep and present. I’d put off reading this book because of its length, but it sucked me right in and was such an engaging story. And if you’ve read her previous book, The Secret History, you’ll see why this is such classically Donna Tartt book. I loved it.