The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The event that will supply the continuing themes of The Goldfinch takes place in an extended opening scene of almost 60 pages. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother (whom he adores) are on the way to his New York school for a meeting with the principal — he has been suspended for the kind of infraction that is common to teenage boys.

They are early for the appointment and, after exiting a very smelly cab in nauseous disgust (“Hawaiian Tropic and baby poo?”), find themselves caught in a rainstorm outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is featuring a massive exhibition of Dutch Art (Portraiture and Nature Morte) and Theo’s mother, trained in art history, decides they should pop in for a quick visit (“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few things”). They do a quick tour, during which Theo pays more attention to a striking red-headed girl of his own age than he does to the paintings.

They separate when Theo’s Mom heads to the gift shop — and there is a massive explosion. When Theo regains consciousness, he finds himself in a gallery with the broken body of the white-haired man (grandfather?) who was accompanying the red-headed girl. After some confused non-conversation (the older man seems to be remembering disasters from his past), the moment that will propel the novel occurs:

He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.

“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”

“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.

I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.

Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust. The Anatomy Lesson was in the same book actually but it scared the pants off me. [That's an observation Theo's mother had made about the painting before the explosion.]

The painting is Fabritius’ 1654 masterpiece, The Goldfinch, which supplies the novel’s title. Theo will pick it up and, when the emergency crews evacuate the Met in fear of another explosion, walk away with it unchallenged — an act that will define the rest of his life, as he protects and treasures the masterpiece he has “stolen”.

The incident also introduces two other themes that will continue throughout the 771-page novel. The first is that girl — Pippa — who will float in and out of Theo’s future life, his ardour for her never failing. And that older man, after convincing him to take the painting, also gives him a ring before he dies: “Hobart and Blackwell,” he said, in a voice like he was drowning from the inside out. “Ring the green bell.” It is when Theo returns the ring that he meets Hobie, who will prove to be the only positive adult force in his life.

Those three themes of painting, Pippa and Hobie may extend through the novel, but it follows anything but a steady, straight-forward course. The Goldfinch plot unfolds in a series of lengthy, widely-different episodes:

  • The first section of the book features the adolescent Theo and his post-explosion life in New York. His mother was killed in the incident and he has “alternative” futures — grandparents in Maryland who don’t want him, a no-good father who deserted his mother years earlier, perhaps a foster home. While he awaits an outcome, he lives with the upper-class Barbours, family of a school chum, in a tony Park Avenue apartment. And he meets Hobie.
  • Part two takes place in a “ghost” Las Vegas suburb, abandoned after the 2008 housing crash. It is home to Theo’s father, a gambler, substance-abuser and loan shark victim, and his girl friend and features only one other occupied house amid a slew of semi-complete dwellings. Life with father is where Theo ended up and this section features his high school years and his semi-destructive friendship with Boris, a streetwise young Russian who becomes another constant in the book.
  • When Theo escapes Las Vegas, he heads back to New York (with the carefully-wrapped masterpiece as part of his baggage) and hooks up again with the Barbours and Hobie. Hobie is an antique-dealer and furniture restorer and Theo learns the trade. He also exhibits part of his father’s character and gets involved in some dodgy trading. But he seems to be landing on his feet when he gets engaged to Kitsey Barbour.
  • That conventional life falls apart when Boris reappears with word that the Goldfinch (which Boris has taken, unknown to Theo) may be in Amsterdam, collateral in a drug-based, money-laundering scheme. The two head off on a recovery mission which features a fair bit of violence, a lot of drugs and even more introspection on Theo’s part.
  • And finally there is an extended coda, where all these various storylines are pulled together.
  • I have focused so far on plot, because for this reader that was the strongest aspect of The Goldfinch. Much of the narrative, however, consists of Theo’s internal musings — while I found them far less interesting, it is only fair to offer an example. Here is the way the novel opens:

    While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch-language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes — for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.

    The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel and I admit that I was looking forward to it. The Secret History, her debut, remains a favorite — a complex and improbable plot is delivered successfully and along the way she supplies concrete substance to a wide cast of characters. The Little Friend was far less successful, although still an enjoyable read.

    Alas, for this reader, The Goldfinch is much more like The Little Friend than The Secret History. Like the debut novel, the plot here is complex and improbable — Tartt does not deal with it nearly as a well.

    A bigger problem was the cast of characters. Plot alone cannot sustain a novel of this length — the characters need to be fully-developed and interesting and that is where The Goldfinch came up short. For my tastes, Theo was just too shallow to engage me; when the narrative headed off into his inner thoughts, I found myself reluctantly following along, waiting for the action to pick up again. And the secondary cast was equally frustrating — Boris never really landed with me, the Barbours were caricatures and only Hobie sparked substantial interest.

    I have read a number of reviews (both in the professional press and from bloggers) of The Goldfinch that were far more positive than this one, so take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt. Theo (and Boris) are far more impressive to these readers than they were for me — perhaps my memory of The Secret History led to too high expectations. There is no doubt that Tartt is an impressive writer; I just think that her 1992 debut showcases those talents much better than this novel does.

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    20 Responses to “The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt”

    1. Mary K Gilbert Says:

      700 pages in the company of a teenage boy was too much for me. I gave up at page 570 and returned it to the library. Apart from the utter implausibility of the plot I think the thing I found the most difficult in this novel was it’s sheer snobbishness. Boris doesn’t just talk in cod-Ukrainian – at length – but he reads Dostoyevsky! Cute little Kitsey dazzles us with the world of the super rich WASPS and Theo can cast his eye approvingly over the Douglas Phyrne (??) furniture in her mother’s mansion – the fact I’d never heard of him was, I suppose, the point. Tartt is versatile though and is keen to show it. She can do drugs and she can do slutty Xandra in Los Vegas and bad boy Dad as well. Finally there’s wise old Hobie the furniture whiz and holy fool who lives in a huge ramshackle house dripping with dusty but priceless antiques apparently invisible to burglars who is only too willing to adopt Theo and teach him ( sorry – us) all he knows…..
      As you say Tartt is a talented writer and she can turn a brilliant phrase even when she’s writing codswallop. I read the rave reviews with astonishment feeling like the child in The Emperors new Clothes. I’m glad to read your more measured and kind response Kevin but I get the impression we’re broadly in agreement.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Well there were times that I was wondering if it had taken 10 years to produce this third novel because the author had to keep looking up new sets of obscure facts to include. And they did seem more designed to impress us with the writer’s breadth of knowledge than to acquaint us with something that we did not know.

        We are broadly in agreement — like you, I found a number of the characters (Boris especially) grating more than anything else.

        I didn’t consider abandoning the book (I should note that from another forum I know Mookse packed it in at page 121) but it was one of those long novels that took even longer than expected to read because I frequently found a reason to do something else rather than resume reading the book.

    2. Mary K Gilbert Says:

      ps I’m snobbish enough myself to be annoyed with my `it’s’. I do know this possessive doesn’t take an apostrophe!!

    3. Naomi Says:

      Thanks! I think I’ll read The Secret History instead of The Goldfinch.

    4. Guy Savage Says:

      It’s always difficult when you’ve read a novel you really enjoy , and then read a second book by the same author that doesn’t quite match it. I agree w/the first commenter though–700 pages w/a teenager might be a bit of a strain.

    5. Buried In Print Says:

      While I can certainly see how this would not be to every reader’s taste, I was absolutely smitten with this novel and, yes, with Boris too. it surprised me, because I did quite enjoy The Secret History back then, but not to the extent that I was particularly eager for this book, despite all the attention and praise. So I wasn’t expecting anything in particular.

      One of the aspects that most appealed to me was Theo’s voice and the fact that it felt consistent and believable (to me, anyway) throughout; the prose (and, agreed: what a lot of it!) was not tidy and the story was not told in the way that I would have told it myself, and Theo was not my favourite character by any stretch, but he was credible for me and I would have read on contentedly. Having said that, I can see why it’s not going to fit with every reader and I wonder, too, if it mightn’t have fit with me on another reading occasion.

      Wholly enjoyed reading your response, as usual, even though we had quite different experiences with the book.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I have found that those who liked the book generally have, like you, quite taken to Boris — and I think that may be a key to a reader’s response. He needs to have enough credibility to become a sort of off-the-wall foil to Theo’s incompleteness. If he does, the novel seems to become much more engaging.

    6. leroyhunter Says:

      To adopt one of your own responses to reviews, Kevin, I feel like you have read this so that I don’t have to.

      The Secret History was a book I spent many years assuming I would eventually read, without actually doing so. I may have to resign myself to a life lived without Tartt.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        If I remember correctly, you were a fan of Skippy Dies, so you may have to keep The Secret History on your potential agenda — it is kind of an American version of a very similar story.

    7. Lee Monks Says:

      I have to disagree, Kevin. I felt that the multiple characters, and the facility Tartt has at employing so many different voices, was very much the book’s strong suit. If anything, the book could’ve been a wee bit longer, but the final four pages, with everything that has preceded them, comprise the best finale to a book I can remember for a good while. It’s a work of comic brilliance, a lot of it. Although, if you, Mary and Mookse didn’t take to it, I do worry I’ve got it all wrong…

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I’m glad to hear from people who did like the book, because I know there are a lot of them. I guess it is just one of those books that produces a wide range of response, even from people who usually have relatively similar tastes.

    8. KevinfromCanada Says:

      This comment actually comes from Max Cairnduff — he left it on the wrong page and I can’t get his gravatar with it when I move it here:

      Max Cairnduff Says:

      March 5, 2014 at 6:51 am | Reply edit

      771 pages? At 771 pages it needs to be more than good, it needs to be great. That’s a serious investment of time.

      While I was reading the early part of your review I was quite tempted. The different episodes each sounded interesting and sufficiently different to each other to maintain interest.

      This though: “(which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch)” – is he a teenager at that point still? What teenager says “knew not a word” instead of “didn’t know any” or similar? I know it sounds picky, but that’s very ornate for interior dialogue.

      Generally though that quote felt to me overwrought. I wasn’t taken by it.

      So, given there’s plenty of interiority and I don’t like the interior quote, and given there’s plenty of plenty too, I’m with Leroy. Thanks for reading this one Kevin so that I don’t have to.

      That said, I don’t fully rule out ever reading it. I may need something like this if I have an extended hospital stay at some point say, but that’s now its mental category for me.

      Nice review as ever.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I didn’t really notice the length as I was reading it (outside of the weight of the book, since I was reading a hardback). Alas, it was one of those books that took too long to read because I kept finding other things to do — procrastination tends to be my response to works that aren’t engaging me.

        I was attracted by the prospect of the wide range of episodes going in and to Tartt’s credit they each have a very different tone and rhythm, even if a lot of the characters are the same. That said, some grated (Las Vegas in particular), especially when contrasted with the ones I did like (Hobie and the antique shop was probably my favorite).

        Part of Theo’s appeal in his incompleteness, which means that there are quite a few clangers in his interior thoughts — when the novel worked for me it was the bizarre voyage of discovery of a person with some severe learning challenges. Maybe that’s also what didn’t work for me — I’d like him to have become a more thoroughly developed person as the book proceeded.

    9. Lee Monks Says:

      The book does have a lot of the ‘just how precocious IS this kid?’ moments but, I confess, I was often enough swept away that I was happy to overlook such potential bugbears. I totally understand such quibbles, but there’s so much that’s good in there. I don’t want to bang on too much about the fact, but it had a lot of personal resonance (not that I’ve ever nicked any art masterworks) so that probably goes a long way here. I think Tartt is impressive enough, often enough, and narratively involving, to more than get away with the book’s prohibitive length.

      And I like the fact that it’s so obstinately long and dares to keep so many plates spinning. Not many could do that as well.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        At the end of the first “section” (which is about 120 pages), I was quite engaged — parts of it were definitely a little slow, but I could accept that. I’ll blame Boris and Las Vegas for causing the tree to start to tilt against the book, which is why I suspect how one reacts to Boris is perhaps the defining determination of a reader’s response to the book.

        And I am with you on the point of keeping the plates spinning.

    10. acommonreaderuk Says:

      I found myself pretty engrossed thoughout this book. I liked Tartt’s ability to evoke atmosphere, which generated a real sense of place about the various locations. But most of all I found Tartt’s writing style impressive, sweeping me along through the lengthy narrative with no sense of heavy labour. However, each to his own, and your review is excellent as always.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I am certainly not going to dispute that a lot of readers whose opinion I respect found much to like in the novel — and I’ll be picking up Tartt’s next one (which is probably more than 10 years away, given her publishing history).

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