accidents, adult fiction, art, art heists, art theft, art thefts, book reviews, Donna Tartt, literary fiction, Little Brown, museums, mystery, New York, October 2013, painting, paintings, Secret History, The Goldfinch, The Little Friend, The Secret History
When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.
“Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present day America and a drama of enthralling force and acuity. It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.”
I somehow have not read The Secret History yet, but after reading this wonderful (and long) novel, I’ll definitely be picking it up. Like most, I was a bit intimidated by The Goldfinch’s length originally, and I put off starting it for a couple of days. But as soon as I began to read, I was drawn into Theo’s singular story, and his both clear-eyed and not way of narrating. Only 12 pages in, I was already hooked. That’s the power of a great writer for you.
There are so many heartbreaking events in this novel, random twists and turns of fate. After all, in the very first few pages, it’s just sheer chance that Theo’s mother gets sick in the cab, they have to get out, it starts to rain, a businessman gets the last taxi, and they decide to take shelter in the museum. That short section was so beautifully written, especially for one who knows what’s going to happen. The sequence afterward the accident was brilliant too, brilliant and dream-like. Really, the entire book is composed of stunning language and beautiful, disturbing snapshots. Characters, places, and events were beautifully described and portrayed. Donna Tartt’s writing style is a bit dense and descriptive, but it didn’t feel overwritten; it felt amazingly perceptive and smart. Tartt also builds dread amazingly well, in the aftermath of what happens in the museum and later on. There’s great foreshadowing in The Goldfinch.
The Goldfinch has been called Dickensian many times, and that’s fairly accurate. The writing is not very similar to Dickens (although there is a lot of description), but the overarching story could be, with strange and cruel twists of fate and fortune, and some very unique, twisted characters. What happens to Theo after the museum is quite improbable: he is abandoned by his father and ends up living with his old school friend on Park Avenue, while meanwhile serving as a sort of apprentice to someone who died in the museum right in front of Theo’s eyes. And that’s the whole similarity to Dickens. The Goldfinch also has a lot of Gothic elements to it.
The central symbol and motif of the whole novel is, of course, the small painting of a captive goldfinch that Theo dazedly steals from the museum. As the story unfolds, it becomes to him a talisman of his lost mother, something tangible to remember her by. After all, it was one of the paintings she loved the most, and as the days go by it becomes harder and harder for Theo to think of a way to return it. The irony is, that it turns out for many years he didn’t actually have this painting that became an object of dread for him. I’m being vague on purpose of course.
There were some great descriptions of the city and of other places too, and I really enjoyed reading about Theo’s relationship with many of the other people in the novel, particularly Hobie, the friend of the old man who died, and Boris, who he meets in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas section was kind of the most depressing, especially since I can related to the whole New York longing thing (sort of). Boris, however, was a character both humorous and sad at the same time, and he was quite irresistible. I didn’t really like their whole relationship though, and it was awful to see Theo turning away from his old life and using drugs and all of that.
The Goldfinch is so, so enthralling and I absolutely loved both the plot and the writing. I would highly recommend this excellent, smart, literary novel, and I’m very glad that I read it. Even though it’s long, it’s still definitely worth the time spent on it. There are a lot more things I could say about the book, but the problem is they’ve already been said by other professional reviewers: here and here. Go check out those reviews; they’re amazingly well crafted, although not as well crafted as this marvelous book.
I received a review copy of this book from Little, Brown; thanks so much! It just came out today; go check it out, preferably at your local bookstore (although the Amazon link is here).