Book Reviews

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt – Book Review


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (published by Little, Brown)

A good book is a wonderful thing to ease the transition to the dark winter evenings. Ideally such a book should be long without being long-winded and Donna Tartt meets the brief with The Goldfinch. In the novel Theo recounts the events of fourteen years of his life from schoolboy to adulthood. As a boy on the cusp of adolescence Theo’s entire world disintegrates when his mother dies in a bomb explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He survives the blast and Theo escapes the debris of the gallery carrying a priceless painting and a gold ring.

Returning the gold ring to its rightful owner leads Theo to an antiques shop in downtown New York. There he meets the gentle and benevolent Hobie who restores old furniture. Helping Hobie in his basement workshop provides Theo with a temporary sanctuary. He is still grieving and numb when his estranged father returns and Theo is forced to move to Las Vegas where his already shaky existence becomes downright tumultuous. Living with a drunken father, flaky girlfriend and heavily influenced by his wild friend Boris, Theo embarks on a troubled path of drug addiction.

The Goldfinch is the name of the painting that Theo takes from the New York gallery and gives the book its name. The oil by Carel Fabritius is reproduced inside the front cover of the book and today the priceless painting hangs in The Hague. In the story its presence in Theo’s life forms a tenuous link with his mother. Captivated by it, held prisoner by it, the masterpiece causes Theo much anguish. When Theo struggles to turn his life around the painting leads him deeper into the dangerous world of art and criminal dealings.

Tartt writes tenderly and beautifully about Theo’s grief. Following his mother’s death he is a dazed, heartbroken young man, very much alone in a world of well-intentioned adults. We continue to empathize with him throughout the novel despite his misdeeds. Other characters drift in and out, compounding the sense of Theo’s isolation and alienation. As the story progresses his dysfunctional ways and inability to break from his circle of grimness and addiction become slightly tiresome, perhaps because we so badly want things to come good for him.

Peppered throughout with references to art and literature, full of characters rich and intensely drawn, the novel has a few surprising twists. Donna Tartt’s prose is light and floats easily off the page and for the most part makes for pleasurable reading. So adept is she at creating a beautiful old-worldly New York ambiance with grand avenues, falling leaves and fine art the reader is at risk of forgetting that the story is set in a contemporary America of I-pods and plasma screen televisions.

Unfortunately the novel feels disjointed in places. It jolts from heady scenes of drug taking in Las Vegas back to the rich society of New York. This juxtaposition is stark and not altogether convincing. Although the story rattles along at a sprightly pace, it is uneven in parts with some protracted repetitive passages describing another drug binge or hedonistic party.

It’s difficult to discern one central pervading theme. Unrequited love, alienation and survival or how one can only ricochet through life following a great trauma. The story is undoubtedly a sad one as a troubled Theo struggles throughout with his demons and strays into the shadows.

Donna Tartt could not be considered a prolific writer. In more than twenty years the American has written just three books. Her first novel The Secret History was published in 1992 and quickly became a contemporary classic. That book firmly established her reputation hence the anticipation surrounded the publication of The Goldfinch. For me this current offering is original and carefully crafted however I feel it doesn’t completely live up to its potential. Nonetheless it is an enchanting literary page-turner and it comes recommended.

Review by Helen O’Leary

Categories: Book Reviews, Books

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