Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt returns with an addictive and intoxicating new novel.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

Reading The Secret History was a defining moment for me. I was at university at the time and it was a set text on my late American literature course. A murder mystery, with knowledge that the murder of a named character would take place from the very start, added with the intellectual elite embarking on literary discussions, quickly made it rise to become one of my all time favourite books. Of course reading it, a campus novel, while at university, was almost perfect timing but I found it a complex and entertaining book. Knowing what had happened, but not why, ensured that you kept on turning the pages.

When it came to reading The Goldfinch, I read the book slowly, wanting to savour it, even though my natural instinct was to devour it. There was also an element of fear, that it may not live up to The Secret History and fall flat. Thankfully, Tartt has delivered again, yet in different ways. Gone is the campus setting and unreliable narrator I never quite learnt to trust and instead it is a globe-trotting page turner with a large cast of characters with equally a large number of quirks.

The Goldfinch a large, complex book, but in terms of plot, nothing really happens for quite some time. At the centre of it all is Theo and we spend a lot of time with him and his surrounding characters, delving deep into his relationships with them. Obsessions begin to bubble to the surface as we turn the pages. Beginning with a moment of violence and tragedy, Theo clings to The Goldfinch painting that comes into his possession, unable to let go, even though it leads him down a very murky path.

As with The Secret History, drugs and alcohol are consumed on a somewhat alarming frequency. Comparing the Theo from the start to the man he becomes at the end, it is quite a change. Some may actually struggle to warm to him as at times his morals slip and shift. He certainly got under my skin as on a number of occasions I wanted to talk to others about it, about what Theo had just done or the mistakes he had made. I called them my “Oh Theo…” moments where I either felt sorry for him or actually felt ashamed of him and the decisions he had made. It was a strange experience as I haven’t connected with a character in that way for quite some time.

Some have questioned the middle section where Theo finds himself lost within the Vegas desert, living on a empty dusty street with his father and his younger girlfriend Xandra. Critics have labelled this section as lagging, as the plot stalls and gets stuck in a rut, yet it is here that Theo falls in with Boris, a Ukrainian he meets at school and who is the cause of his spiralling drug addiction. Boris becomes a breath of fresh air amongst the heat and the dust for both us and Theo and for me the scenes with Boris were a joy as not only did it feel like a real friendship but also one that would end in unfortunate circumstances.

As the book drew to a close and it was time to leave Theo’s world behind, I actually felt a little bereft

By the novel’s conclusion, the plot accelerates, bordering almost on a thriller, as the cast of characters expands even further and Theo’s world begins to fall apart. Grief, loss, obsession and young love are all touched on, along with details on art, antiques and more. As the book drew to a close and it was time to leave Theo’s world behind, I actually felt a little bereft. For so long I had been immersed in his world, with his hopes and dreams put bare on the page that saying goodbye was like going cold turkey.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. Sue says:

    ‘Gone is the campus setting and unreliable narrator I never quite learnt to trust…

    I had the idea of Richard Papen as unreliable narrator in my head going into The Goldfinch and I may have found Theo even more unreliable. The scene where he has reconnected with Boris and is being told about all the situations he doesn’t remember, because he was a black-out drunk made me wonder what else Theo might have been leaving out of the story, if only because he didn’t remember. Moreover, there are a few sections where Boris et al begin speaking in various other languages and Theo has no idea what they’re talking about. Subsequently, neither do we. Finally, the nature of Theo’s business dealings as Hobie’s partner is fraught with lies and deception. I loved him to death, but I wouldn’t consider him ‘reliable.’

    Thanks for the review!


    • Adventures With Words says:

      I agree that Theo probably has a lot to hide to us as his readers. We’re relying on him to recall his spiral and descent to us so who’s to say it’s all true?! I think there’s more to his relationship with Boris than we’re told and that he is even lying to himself at times.

      Ever since reading The Turn of the Screw I’ve somewhat struggled to trust first person narrators. We are so reliant on them as our eyes and ears I always assume they are up to something!

      – Rob

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