Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Ah, The Goldfinch, a 700+ page tome that many are hailing as the book of the decade and beyond. Of course there are also those that think Donna Tartt is overrated and overhyped.  Who doesn’t love a good literary dust up?  I was a big fan of Tartt’s The Secret History and just finished The Goldfinch, so I suppose I must weigh in.  This will be a pretty thin review because I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  When I read The Goldfinch, I knew absolutely nothing about it, not one plot point.  One of the big joys of The Goldfinch is how the plot twists and turns, travels through time, and trots across the globe. I was glad not to know what to expect around any corner, so I promise not to spoil.

Tartt is an excellent writer with a vivid imagination and The Goldfinch’s plot is testament to that.  The book tracks Theo Decker from teen years to adulthood.  We first meet Decker as a thirteen year old. He’s a liberal, cultured New York kind of kid.  Hints of a Salinger and Fitzgerald protagonists are in his DNA.  He’s a sensitive boy.  This is no surprise based on the prep-school milieu Tartt’s work seems to inhabit.  Theo’s mother instills in him a love of art, and much of the plot revolves around their connection to Carel Fabritius’s Dutch masterpiece The Goldfinch.  Tartt gets a big thumbs up from me for focusing her story around a piece of art.  The book makes us question the importance of art in culture, in society, and addresses how we interpret and value art.  That’s good stuff as far as I’m concerned.

But this isn’t some navel-gazing art salon universe.  Theo’s path gets violently altered at the outset of The Goldfinch, and his journey from boyhood to adulthood is painful. My one issue with the book is that for the bulk of the novel, after his life-altering episode, Theo becomes a bit of jerk.  He’s a fairly unlikeable character for much of the novel’s 700+ pages.  I have no problem with unlikeable and conflicted protagonists, but I just felt that the character he becomes for the bulk of the novel is not in keeping with the character we meet at the outset.  Similarly over the novel's final 30 pages, Theo looks back and reflects on his experiences in a thoughtful and philosophical manner.  He's regained the grace of his younger self, but it seems like such a sudden about face given the hellish path he's walked down.

Ultimately, The Goldfinch is an excellent read, so it’s a minor point to be sure, but I felt that given the grand scope of the novel and the Pulitzer Prize and all, that there was some fraying around the edges of this one.

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