Book Review: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch was highly acclaimed and won a Pulitzer in 2014, so it must be pretty good, huh?

Actually, it is pretty good, far better than the blurbs would have led me to believe.

This is a long story, mostly recollection of the life of Theo Decker. Theo has a tough life, some really bad things happen at an early age. He ends up an orphan, and effectively living alone. Unhappy, scared teenager, living alone. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, Theo seems to be able to make the worst of any situation. He also is oblivious to good people around him, and has a hazy grasp of how the world works. This is a formula for getting in even more trouble, which he certainly does.

The title refers to a famous painting which, in the novel, plays a key role in Theo’s life, in very confused and confusing ways. Much of the plot centers on this rare and beautiful object, though a lot of it is in Theo’s head, imagining scenarios and consequences with little reality checking.

Theo! Son! Talk to the people who love you (and not just that wild boy Borys)!

Tartt is a skilled writer, who works hard to make the first person, stream of consciousness narrative interesting, if not always easy to follow. If anything, the writing is too fancy, with a lot of flash back and flash forward, digressions, and drug/anxiety/fever induced incoherence.

In places, it was hard work to keep track of what is going on and decipher fantasy from (imagined) recollection from reality. There is both menace and joy in everyday setting, often tangled together or shifting from one to another in an instant. This is not an easy read.

The characters in Theo’s life are all weird and unusual and, well, strange. No wonder he’s a messed up kid, if he never met any reasonably sane adults or children, or reasonably “normal” situations. OK, maybe that’s part of the ‘message’—there is no such thing as normal. Tut, really, this kid’s life is really messed up.

I have to say that Theo’s basically asocial, “just do it” approach to life is a great advertisement for not “just doing it”. He does so many idiotic things, for such poorly thought out reasons, and ignores so many clearly visible warnings, that I have to really wonder about him. “[S]ometimes you can do everything wrong and it comes out right.” (?!) Not in my experience.

As an indication of his screwed up psychology, I thought it was extremely telling that, very late in the game, it is a revelation to him that Mrs. Barbour loves him, and his discovery that his own actions can make her happy, and that making her happy makes him happy. Duh! Come on, kid! Pay attention to someone other than yourself. Sheesh!

The settings and situations are described in loving detail throughout.

I’m assuming that these are realistic portrayals of antique furniture, artworks, architecture, as well as street scenes of New York City, Las Vegas, Amsterdam. But I don’t really know, and honestly, mostly I don’t care about them.

For the record, I didn’t really enjoy the naturalistic, first person portrayal of his drug use. It was not really that interesting to try to sift through the confused blather, and baffling recollections of, heavy drug use.

In the end, I read along to try to see how things come out, at least for the handful of nice people that I wanted to escape the disaster that is Theo.

But I surely didn’t like Theo, and have remarkably little sympathy for this nihilistic knucklehead who seems unable to make anything good of himself, and seems to have an unlimited potential to create huge problems for himself and people who love him. Existence is “catastrophe”, he concludes, with “no way out but death”. Depressing to read, and, worse, boring.

I’m not really sure why this garnered a Pulitzer.


  1. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

 

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