The Goldfinch

I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s book, The Goldfinch. It was one of two books recommended to me at the beginning of the summer, by my friend Stephanie. I didn’t get around to actually reading it until after the school year was already started, but I’m glad I waited to return the book (even if it felt like my delay was accruing a “friendship fine”). I understand, now, why the book is so critically acclaimed.

The Goldfinch is a powerful story, with a highly-compelling plot. The characters are well-crafted, multi-dimensional, life-like figures. The deeper themes of the book — masked, mostly, until the last couple of chapters — are thought-provoking and worthwhile.

It’s just about everything I would hope for in a book. Except, perhaps, for its length.

The paperback edition I borrowed from Stephanie was 771 pages long. And while some sections read quickly — driven by intense action, with explosions and life-or-death drama — there are more sections that read slowly. These sections are where the characters really get their life and depth, however, so it’s hard to fault the book for its technique. I’m just saying: it took me almost two months to get through the book. I don’t regret the time spent, but it did take some time.

The story centers around a character named Theo Decker. He lives in New York City with his mother until one day when he and his mother were visiting an art museum to see an exhibition of Dutch masters. Carel Fabritius’ painting, Het Puttertje (The Goldfinch), was her favorite. While they’re at the museum, however, a bomb is detonated while Theo is separated from his mother (presumably some sort of terrorist attack). Chaos ensues. Theo picks his way through the rubble and ruins to find a grandfatherly figure who’s mortally wounded. He stays with the man as he breathes his last breaths, and the man draws his attention to the same painting his mother had admired. Theo understands that he should take the painting and the man’s special signet ring. And after the man’s death, Theo crawls through more rubble until he finds a way out of the museum’s ruins.

The next few years of Theo’s life coincide with his adolescence. He moves between family friends, a deadbeat dad, and a series of social workers for the next several years, and the only constant in his life is the painting. But as he matures, he also learns that his possession of the painting amounts to a multi-million dollar theft. He’s plagued, for years, by indecision, instability, guilt, fear, and tension.

He travels between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam at various points in the narrative. (I especially appreciate the way that the author wrote the sections set in Amsterdam). He falls into addiction. He falls in love. There are moments of clarity and building a better life, but there are also moments of indiscretion and careening towards devastation.

The way the book resolves itself, however, is masterful. Some of the closing soliloquy is genuinely haunting. I think of the statement, “Sometimes you have to lose to win.” And the realization that “the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.” And there are genuine echoes of the Gospel in there! I’m being purposely enigmatic, here, as I consider the book’s closing themes — because I don’t want to give anything away to future readers of the book (and I hope that my reflections will give others cause to read this book for themselves!). But I like the way Theo looks back on his own story and makes sense of it all.

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