“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. In need of some direction for my next read, I turned to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 which is where I found it short-listed. Along with some others from the short-list, I ordered “The Goldfinch”. Eventually I picked it up, which after dabbling in kindle reading was quite a shock to my weakened arm muscles (its really big. 864 pages big).
I had no idea what it was about. Baileys told me it was good so I bought it. Before delving in, I gave the dust jacket a cursory glance to prepare my brain for what was to come. This is what I read:
“Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld.”
If I had read this in the mellow light of a bookshop, I most likely would have put it down as it doesn’t sound like my usual cup of coffee (black no sugar in case anyone’s taking notes). But I had it so I read it anyway.
Since finishing the book, I’ve had a look at some reviews and am surprised by the polarity of opinions about it. Vanity Fair give far too much of the story away before giving Tartt some backhanded compliments, followed by some outright insults. The Sunday Times is also fairly mean. The Guardian is much more upbeat about the whole thing. I’m not going to tell you what happens. Tartt does that very well all on her own. I do want to talk about her characters, her voice and some themes that I took away from the book.
I’ll start with our tragically naive protagonist, Theo Decker. What a guy. Its been 11 years since her last book so I imagine that Theo Decker has been with Tartt for some time. In a 800+ page book with a single narrator, I don’t doubt that he’ll be sticking around a little longer. We meet Theo in his 20s before hurtling back in time to 13 year old Theo. Because of what happens, the novel deals a lot with “what ifs”. When looking through Theo’s eyes, its hard not to constantly ask this question regarding him as a person. In some ways, when comparing 20 something Theo to his younger self, despite everything that he’s been through, he’s still exactly the same naive little boy. Its almost as if his personal growth was stunted that day in New York.
The relationship between Theo and Boris is essentially harnessed in “bad” things. Drugs, truanting, theft etc. Many more “what if” questions arise around this friendship. Boris is the antithesis of Theo and exactly what the book needed, if not Theo himself, who arguably would have done very well without Boris. In a much different way. If Theo is stunted and naive, Boris is worldly wise and fearless. Boris is also quite fun to read with his myriad of accents from his wandering childhood.
There are many other characters of course, which don’t take up too much airtime but nevertheless perform prominent and pivotal roles within the plot. Most of these characters are physically absent throughout the narrative, being abroad, away at school or dead. But Theo still carries them with him. The most striking example of this is on page 783 (I’m now going to tell you something that happens in the book even though I said I wouldn’t do that) when Theo is holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room. He is in trouble. He’s done some terrible things. He’s full of fever and other questionable substances. He’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. He flicks through the channels on the TV and this happens:
“I stopped astonished at the sight of my twenty-five-year-old father: one of his many non-speaking roles, a yes-man hovering behind a political candidate at a press conference, nodding at the guy’s campaign promises and for one eerie blink glancing into the camera and straight across the ocean and into the future, at me. The multiple ironies of this were so layered and uncanny that I gaped in horror.”
There are many more examples of weird coincidences throughout the novel. Not only that but it is so visual, that all along I kept saying how great this story would be for a film and/or TV show. And now The Hollywood Reporter tells us that it’s happening!! Very exciting! I feel I should get some kind of cut. No?
The main lesson that I took from “The Goldfinch” is that good can come from bad. Its so simple and yet so powerful. You might argue that it was unnecessary for Tartt to pre-empt this pearl of wisdom with 835 pages, but I would disagree. Theo’s realisation at this point throws a whole new light on all that has passed. It ultimately allows him to feel acceptance and move forward philosophically rather than look back in anger (I heard you say…little Oasis kicker for you there). While reading the closing pages, it is difficult to decipher Theo’s voice from Tartt’s. It is clearly Theo speaking, but what he says is clearly very important to Tartt, or she would not have devoted a whole novel to illustrating the points that she lays out here.
I don’t say this about many characters, but since I’ve finished “The Goldfinch”, I miss Theo. I’m used to his voice and his tone. But because I am a 100% certified bookaholic and must therefore be holding and/ or be near a book 24/7, I confess that the “The Goldfinch” was still warm when I reached for the next one. Oh the shame. While this is good for my book addiction, it does not allow me to forget Theo. This morning I found myself reading “Lolita” in Theo’s voice, which is all sorts of wrong. But that is testament to Tartt’s creation.
Tartt has created a masterpiece not unlike its namesake painting. In it she champions the importance of the Arts. This is seen in the dangerous lengths that her characters go to, to protect Art as well as portraying the black hole that it leaves once its gone.
There are so many other things I could say about this book but the wordcount is bordering on silly and you probably have a life to be getting on with, so I’ll leave it with this: yes, its big and bulky and yes, it is mostly very deeply sad, but a good book is worth sticking with. There will be moments when you think, “C’mon Tartt! Lighten up!”, but then, 800 pages later, you’ll read a line. And that line will put it all into perspective. A light bulb will flicker on above your head and you will feel so very wise. I can’t tell you which line that will be because it will most likely be different to the one I picked out.
And then, when you’ve read that big book all by yourself, you can treat yourself with some sort of delicious cake. There you go. Cake. You deserve it.