Book Review: The Goldfinch

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer-winning smash hit ‘The Goldfinch’.

Nobody should read books to be able to participate in cultural conversations. Your time is limited and your literary choices should involve the authors and stories that grab and interest you. Reading a book is a highly intimate, personal thing, where your time is spent accompanying your mind to another place and world altogether. Anything else is bullshit.

That said, even if you don’t follow the literary press and latest gossip, it’s been impossible to avoid the conversation around Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch. This book has split critics down the middle and sparked real conversations that the literature world hasn’t seen in quite some time. Is it a page-turning book with deep philosophical musings, a fresh take on depression, history and art? Or is it Harry Potter for adults, a bullshit premise with a Mary Sue for a protagonist and a ridiculous series of unlikely events coming together to form a ludicrous story?

The answer, as it always is, lies somewhere in between, but my problem with the highbrow literary folks turning up their noses at The Goldfinch is that just because a story has elements of fairy tale in it doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious novel. Tartt spent 11 years working on this and it shows–it is expertly crafted, and though it is maybe 50-100 pages too long, it hits all of the right notes.

The story is ostensibly about a 13-year-old boy, Theo Decker, who accompanies his art-loving mother to the Met Museum in NYC to check out an exhibition on Dutch masters. A terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother and many other bystanders in the blast. A dazed Theo scoops up one of his mother’s favorite paintings, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. The rest of the book follows Theo, painting secretly in tow, through the aftermath of tragedy, from living with a family friend in NYC, to moving in with his alcoholic father in Las Vegas, to becoming an adult.

This run down of the plot makes it sound less interesting than the book itself reads–we are inside Theo’s head and with him as he grows up through this depression. We see his substance abuse issues, his eccentric friendships and many of his triumphs and failures. But through it all is the connecting thread of The Goldfinch and it’s importance to both Theo and the world at large.

The book is ambitious, and sprawling. There are parts of the story (such as towards the end when we are stuck in a hotel room with a fevered Theo) that feel overlong and claustrophobic. Outside of the act of stealing the painting, Theo is a main character that just has shit happen to him rather than actually doing anything himself. Some of the most important characters (like Theo’s Russian mafioso friend Boris, or the kind, Dumbledore-like old man Hobie) feel like cartoon characters. But you know what? That’s OK. It works.

There are very few pages that could be described as boring. Tartt is a true talent; she manages to write from a male perspective well, creates interesting situations, presents interesting philosophical questions about the value of art and beauty and most of all has a really important quality in that she, frankly, just knows her shit. And knowing your shit goes a long way.

Rating: **** 1/2 

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