A review by loribeth1961
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

challenging dark emotional mysterious reflective sad slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


Back in the early 1990s, I read an amazing debut novel (that I keep meaning to re-read someday) called "The Secret History" by a talented young writer named Donna Tartt. Tartt went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for her third novel, "The Goldfinch." I bought a thick paperback copy that languished on the shelf, eventually to be replaced by an e-copy -- which I still hadn't gotten around to reading, until it was chosen by one of my online book clubs as our next read, covering both March & April (because of its 700+ page length -- my e-book copy, when set at a comfortable-for-my-eyes typesize & line spacing, was 1,400+!). (I still haven't read Tartt's second book, "The Little Friend.")

As the book begins, our protagonist/narrator, Theo Decker, is holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, thinking back to the fateful day 14 years earlier when, as a 13-year-old in New York City, he and his mother decided to pop into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to kill some time before heading to an appointment -- at the same time that a massive explosion occurs -- a deadly terrorist attack.

Amid the chaos, Theo comforts a dying elderly gentleman, who gives him a ring and directs him to take one of the paintings (which happens to be his mother's favourite) -- a small, exquisite picture of a goldfinch, chained to its perch, by Dutch master Carol Fabritius (and it is an actual painting). Wrapped in newspapers and an old pillowcase, the priceless masterpiece -- the one thing he has left that connects him to his mother -- accompanies Theo over the next 14 years, as he moves from his mother's apartment and in with a friend's wealthy family on Park Avenue -- then to the completely alien environment of Las Vegas with his previously estranged father and his girlfriend -- then back to New York again (Greenwich Village).

First -- what I didn't enjoy: the book is very (VERY!) LONG, and very leisurely paced. Maybe it's a sign of our shrinking attention spans in the age of instant gratification, but it did feel like a bit of a slog at times. (At 700+ pages, shouldn't I be able to count it as two books read on Goodreads??)

(As an aside: Scanning the reviews of both the book and the movie version online, the word "Dickensian" kept popping up. There are some parallels in the sprawling, meandering, twisting plot, and large cast of colourful characters -- and one of the characters references Dickens, drawing a parallel between another character and the Artful Dodger from "Oliver Twist" -- but most especially the length!)

It's all well written, but some of the material felt extraneous -- there's a lot that probably could have been cut or condensed. Also, there are lots of foreign words & phrases throughout, which was slightly annoying, because I felt like I either had to stop reading and start typing into Google Translate, or keep reading but possibly miss out on a key piece of information, or at least some little nugget that would add to my understanding &/or enjoyment of the novel.

Still. Just when I felt like things were going nowhere, they would pick up again -- and I'd keep on reading.

What I enjoyed about this book: Tartt really is an amazing writer. The characters are all vividly drawn. As I said, I kept reading -- because I wanted to know what happened to Theo, and his best friend -- the charismatic rogue Boris (who -- timely footnote -- is Ukrainian); and to Hobie, the kindly craftsman and expert restorer of antique furniture, who gives Theo a home and a future; and Pippa, a fellow survivor of the terrorist attack, and Theo's dream girl; and the Barbour family, and more. (Apparently Luke Wilson plays Theo's dad in the movie version -- and I can see that -- but really, the only person I could envision as I read the book was a young Michael Douglas. ;) ) The descriptions of New York City and Las Vegas were cinematic. And Tartt's descriptions of the lingering effects of grief and loss, trauma/PTSD, guilt and anxiety, all of which hang over and colour the entire book, are BANG ON. There are several coincidences and plot twists that, while somewhat improbable, also keep things interesting.

So -- not 5 stars. There were parts of the book where I was thinking 3.5, but I wound up bestowing a solid 4. I will look forward to our upcoming discussion.

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