The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt is one I’d heard a lot of but wasn’t sure I wanted to read. It won the Pulitzer and was on a bunch of lists, but it was long and felt like a big commitment. I also didn’t have a very good idea of what it was about. But when it showed up on two of my book lists and my book club decided to read it, I figured it was inevitable. I found The Goldfinch to be well-written with realistic, interesting characters and plot twists that kept me attached to the book. I also found it to be rather long and depressing. It was definitely worth reading, but in the end it wasn’t one of my favorites.
Theo Decker is thirteen years old when the course of his life is changed forever when he survives the accident that kills his mother. Initially he goes to live with the family of a friend from school as he slowly processes his grief. His last connection with his mother is a priceless work of art called “The Goldfinch.” A real painting, it is simply the small bird on a perch with a small gold chain connected to its ankle, keeping it from flying too far away.
The rest of the book is Theo struggling to live his life. Tartt expresses the idea that your life is already fated. “What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set?” (745) Some people get a shitty deal, and they have to live with it the best they can. Theo is definitely in this group. However, she raises some fascinating questions. Would Theo have ended up as he did if his mother didn’t die? Would his father still have influenced his life so significantly?
I was impressed with how Tartt wrote her characters. They were interesting and felt real. I was also impressed by how Tartt described Theo’s grief at the death of his mother. She conveyed his deep loss and confusion without making it melodramatic.
However, this book was a very anxious read for me. From the very beginning of the novel, Theo was always in trouble or doing something that made me uncomfortable. Tartt seemed to deliberately jump over anything that was positive in his life and always focused on the bad. It made for some heavy reading. It was the slow, painful reveal of a life unraveling. Again, there were many interesting parts, and Tartt kept the narrative going with some dramatic turns of events. I will leave you with some “uplifting” quotes.
“Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature–fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.” (306)
“Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent.” (476)
“…better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts.” (767)
“and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?” (768)
“We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth.” (770)
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.