Better Late than Never: The Goldfinch

And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.

goldfinch tarttMy pristine paperback copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch cost all of £1 at a used bookshop in Henley. Talk about entertainment value for money! Although it took me nearly a month to read, starting with Christmas week, it was more gripping than that timeframe seems to suggest. I read it under a pair of cats in the bitter-cold first week of a Pennsylvania January, then tucked it under my arm for airport queues (no way would it fit in my overstuffed carry-on bag) and finally finished it during my first week of bouncing back from transatlantic jetlag. Somehow Theo Decker’s fictional travels – from New York to Las Vegas and back; to Amsterdam and home again – blended with my sense of having been on a literal journey with the book to make this one of my most memorable reading experiences in years.

That’s not to say that the book was flawless. In fact, I found the first 200 pages or so pretty slow. You almost certainly know the basics of the plot already, but if not, glance away from the rest of this paragraph. Theo, 13, is separated from his mother during a terrorist attack on a New York City museum. Among the dying he encounters an older man – guardian of the pretty red-haired girl Theo had been checking out just moments before – who gives him a ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell antiques. But this is not the only souvenir Theo takes from his ordeal; he also steals the little Dutch masterpiece by Fabritius that appears on the book’s cover. Stumbling around the streets of New York, the shell-shocked Theo undoubtedly resembles a 9/11 victim. As the years pass, he is moved from guardian to guardian, but a few things remain constant: his memory of his mother, his obsession with the painting, and his love for Pippa, that red-haired girl who, like him, was among the survivors.

The aftermath of the attack was the most tedious section for me. It felt like it took forever for Theo’s future to be set in motion, and I thought if I heard him complain of how his head was killing him one more time I might just scream. It’s when Theo gets to Vegas, and specifically when he meets Boris, that the book really takes off. Boris is simply a terrific character. He’s lived all over and has a mixed-up accent that’s part Australian with heavy Slavic overtones. Like Theo, he has an unreliable father who is often too drunk to care what his kid is doing. This leaves the two young teens free to do whatever they want, usually something classified as illegal. Indeed, there’s a lot of drug use in this book, described in the kind of detail that makes you wonder what Tartt was up to during her years at Bennington.

Alexanderkade, Amsterdam (by David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons).
Alexanderkade, Amsterdam (by David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons).
As a young man Theo, back in New York, joins Hobie (of Hobart and Blackwell) in selling antiques both genuine and ersatz, and reconnects with an old friend’s family in a surprising manner. The story of what becomes of the painting was in danger of turning into a clichéd crime caper, yet Tartt manages to transform it into a richly philosophical interrogation of the nature of fate. Theo’s intimate first-person narration makes him the heir first of Dickensian orphans and later of the kind of tortured antiheroes you’d find in a nineteenth-century Russian novel: “I had the queasy sense of my own life … as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.”

Similar to my experience with Of Human Bondage, I found that the latter part of the novel was the best. The last 200 pages are not only the most addictive plot-wise but also the most introspective; all my Post-It flags congregate here. It’s also full of the best examples of Tartt’s distinctive prose. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s like brush strokes: especially in the scenes set in Amsterdam, she’s creating a still life with words. Often this is through sentences listing images, in phrases separated by commas. Here’s a few examples:

Floodlit window. Mortuary glow from the cold case. Beyond the fog-condensed glass, trickling with water, winged sprays of orchids quivered in the fan’s draft: ghost-white, lunar, angelic.

Out on the street: holiday splendor and delirium. Reflections danced and shimmered on black water: laced arcades above the street, garlands of light on the canal boats.

Medieval city: crooked streets, lights draped on bridges and shining off rain-peppered canals, melting in the drizzle. Infinity of anonymous shops, twinkling window displays, lingerie and garter belts, kitchen utensils arrayed like surgical instruments, foreign words everywhere…

Such sentence construction shouldn’t work, yet it does. I’ve never been one to fawn over Donna Tartt, but this is writing I can really appreciate.

[I did take issue with some of the punctuation in the novel, though whether that’s down to Tartt, her editor or the UK publication team I couldn’t say. Take, for instance, this description of a station clerk: “a broad, fair, middle aged woman, pillowy at the bosom and impersonally genial like a procuress in a second rate genre painting.” Another solid allusion to Dutch art, but missing two hyphens if you ask me.]

The goldfinch. 1654. oil on panel. 33.5 × 22.8 cm (13.2 × 9 in). The Hague, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis. Carel Fabritius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The goldfinch. 1654. oil on panel. 33.5 × 22.8 cm (13.2 × 9 in). The Hague, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis. Carel Fabritius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The Goldfinch contains multitudes. It’s the Dickensian coming-of-age tale of a hero much like David Copperfield who’s “possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted.” It’s a realist record of criminal escapades. It’s a story of unrequited love. It’s a convincing first-hand picture of anxiety, addiction and regret. It has a great road trip, an endearing small dog, and a last line that rivals The Great Gatsby’s (I’ll leave you to experience it for yourself). It’s a meditation on time, fate and the purpose of art. It’s not perfect, and yet I – even as someone who pretty much never rereads books – can imagine reading this again in the future and gleaning more with hindsight. That makes it worthy of one of my rare 5-star recommendations.

Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?

My rating: 5 star rating

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18 thoughts on “Better Late than Never: The Goldfinch

  1. I agree that it’s a mighty long, but rewarding read. It must be a good 18 months since I got round to getting my head round it, but it’s a book that stays with me, and I may revisit. I don’t often say that.

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  2. I own this one (I paid about the same as you did for it), but I haven’t read it yet, What’s taking me so long to get to it, I’m not sure. I haven’t read any of her books yet. But now I feel more confident about it! Have you read her others?

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    1. Yes, I’ve read all three of her books. This is definitely the best one. Whether that means you should read it first I’m not sure. The Little Friend can be skipped, so it’s just a matter of choosing between The Goldfinch and The Secret History. The latter is a literary thriller and a really quick read, so could be a good one to start with.

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  3. Wonderful review! I loved this book too. The only bit that frustrated me was everything that happened once Boris reappeared. Then I struggled slightly to stay involved.

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  4. (ah just saw in another comment you read the Secret History…I thought it was way more exciting, though the settings of the Goldfinch were kind of more dramatic..)

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