“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?”
— Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
This quote demonstrates how complex and deepThe Goldfinch is: between thriller, literary fiction and slice of life, it is as compelling as puzzling, as touching as unnerving.
Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker could not have guessed that his mother wouldn’t walk out of the museum alive. Left alone in New York, he is first hosted by a friend’s family… Not completely alone though, as he finds comfort in a small, stunning painting that reminds him of his mum but will cause him more trouble than he would have expected.
Terribly atmospheric, this novel smells like dust, antiquarian shops, drugs, alcohol, dirt, but also luxury and fresh clothes. What a strange mix! The characters go from cosy nooks to plush living rooms and spend quite some time in ill-famed squats, all places where beauty and human misery collapse.
Although the pace quickens towards the end of the novel, where the plot and action scenes take over, The Goldfinch is very much character driven… A real problem for me, as I couldn’t bear the protagonist.
Theo keeps taking incomprehensible decisions, his obsessions preventing him from thinking straight. He grows darker throughout the novel and yet, never fails to let glimmers of light shine through his armour. Highly intelligent and knowledgeable when it comes to art and beauty, he is not particularly likeable or endearing and easily got on my nerves, although he always seems to act as he thinks best.
Fortunately, the novel’s other characters are engaging enough to keep readers happy. Hobie, my personal favourite, a warm father figure, brightens every scene he is part of and soothed my heart when I needed a break from Theo and his friend Boris, whose flamboyant Slavic soul leads to danger and excess.
Women, for their part, play major roles in Theo’s life while always remaining in the background, ghost-like figures that drive the protagonist crazy, give him strength and change his life.
I deeply enjoyed discovering the world of art and antiquarian business thanks to Donna Tartt’s incredible writing, which transported me into a universe I knew nothing of. Her fluid and striking writing style, sometimes reminiscent of a stream of consciousness, is both highly accessible and powerful enough to convey deep reflections on life, death, destiny, beauty, and the importance of art.
Art is everywhere, in every word, every reference to literature, painting, great artists who marked their time, whose masterpieces travelled through the ages. Coorte, Fabritius, Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer… If Tartt’s beautiful depiction of Amsterdam does not succeed in making you hop on the plane, these names will lead you right to the Maurithsuis.
Even though toxic friendships and broken families often make me ill-at-ease, I couldn’t stop reading this compelling novel that, at the same time, filled me with joy by showing me a new way to look at art, museums, beauty and life overall.
Ron Charles, from The Washington Post, summarised perfectly what I got from the book:
“The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention. From the streets of New York to the dark corners of the art underworld, this ‘soaring masterpiece’ examines the devastating impact of grief and the ruthless machinations of fate.”
Surprisingly, however, I wouldn’t describe The Goldfinch as a book I really enjoyed. It nurtured me. But the process of reading it was sometimes painful, with its unlikeable characters whose story is stretched over more than 850 pages. A book to read, but maybe not one you’ll really like. A book that I will undoubtedly keep in mind, but that I might not have the strength to reread. A book that still puzzles me, on which I do not have yet formed a definite opinion. And probably never will.
But isn’t it what art and literature are for?
About the book
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Little, Brown (Penguin Random House)
Publication year: 2014 (first published in 2013)
Page count: 880