The Goldfinch is a magnificently populated, old fashioned bildungsroman which lets us soak in the simple pleasures of a huge book (it comes in at 864 pages) while making sure the pages fly by at a reasonably exuberant pace. Donna Tartt usually writes a novel a decade, and usually her novels are worth the wait. In my case though, I had initially read her second and lesser acclaimed work, The Little Friend, and wasn’t too impressed with that story’s annoying lack of closure or resolution to the central premise. However, the writing and characterization even there was remarkably astute. When I finally got around to reading her brilliant first book, The Secret History, I finally understood all the hype. That book managed to mix a dash of ethereal, almost surreal intrigue to the story of a bunch of over-privileged academics who get into an almighty mess and kept us on tenterhooks for the most part, while also providing an immensely erudite read. The Goldfinch may not be as inventively clever as The Secret History, but it retains the sparkle of character development and affecting tableaus of life at different points of the protagonist’s life. Most importantly though, despite its daunting size, the novel is immensely readable and hardly flags at any point.
Theo Decker’s life as he knew it changed one day when a bomb blast at a museum he had stepped into with his mother killed her and left him drifting on an aimless meander through the aftermath of the wreckage. Bound by a deep love and companionship, especially in the wake of his wayward father abandoning them, Theo and his mother were inseparable. Luckily, Theo finds temporary succor in the well-off home of his old friend, Andy Barbour. The Barbours, especially the prim Mrs. Barbour, take Theo under their wings and keep him out of the clutches of an uncaring grandfather and of Social Services. Another unexpected event which helps Theo find a semblance of belonging is his meeting with an antique store owner, Hobie and subsequent informal apprenticeship at this underground home. Theo’s path to Hobie is one of those quirks of chance, and also has links to the title of the book. For it was Hobie’s business partner, Old Mr. Welt (Welty) and his granddaughter Pippa who Theo had noticed at the museum just before the blast. In the dazed haze of the rubble left behind by the bomb, Theo comes across the grievously wounded Welty who implores him to take his bracelet to Hobie as well as to rescue a priceless painting still intact on the wall. This painting is the Goldfinch of the title, a small but priceless painting created in 1654 by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died that year at 32, when the gunpowder arsenal in Delft exploded. On that impulse, Theo walks out of the museum with the painting and struggles with the question of when and if he should return it. For him it evokes muddled but intense feelings, especially considering its link to the day his mother died.
Just as a semblance of normality and acceptance is creeping into his life, Theo’s dad and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up completely out of the blue and whisk him away to Las Vegas. Theo uneasily goes along with the flow, neither particularly happy but not rejecting the chance at making it with a dad who he harbors suspicion and resentment towards since he walked out on them years back. This ambiguity works for us, the readers, as well. Theo’s dad appears to be a no-hoper, but is he actually trying to make a fresh start at being a good parent? Or is his intention purely to get at some form of monetary compensation from the death of his mother? I think this aspect works well for us, as it creates a genuine air of inscrutability to the proceedings. It is the arid, bleak landscape of half-finished and isolated gleaming housing projects of the Vegas outskirts that Theo gets close to one of the most intriguing and captivating characters of this book, Boris. This is one of those characters who would be pretty tough to believe exists in real life; a beer swilling, drug addicted youth dragged around behind his shady father, who supposedly works in the oil industry and has had to work in various remote places, and who reads Dostoevsky and the likes in his spare time. Well yes, but it also leads to some engrossing passages, as Theo and Boris reach out to each other like lost souls connecting over their shared excesses in life. As the days blend into each other, they pass it in a haze of semi-addled, drug fueled intoxication. However, once again life deals Theo with further upheaval, and he finds himself back in New York and the dependable Hobie.
The rest of the story is dedicated to an adult Theo and his art world shenanigans as well as his attempts to get back to a reasonable life while dealing with an intense unrequited love for Pippa, for whom he has been carrying a bright flame ever since their shared misfortune at the museum. His re-acquaintance with the Barbours is a sensitively affective part of the narrative with some unexpected consequences. Through it all, the nagging presence of the painting keeps him on tenterhooks and eventually leads him to the seedy underworld in Europe.
A couple of slight missteps perhaps. Tartt is not very comfortable with technology, as she herself has stated in interviews before (supposedly she did not even have a television for a long time), and it’s obvious at certain points in the book. After all, most of the action is centered on young people growing up in recent times, and yet the few mentions of email and messaging is clunky at best. But I suppose this does help the book retain that old world charm it looks to be aiming for. Also, there are parts of the book which can feel repetitive or slightly unbelievable, and just maybe the book could have been slightly shorter in length, but then again when there is such a briskly paced yarn on offer, why would anyone want to cut it down to size? Theo’s relationships with the people around him and his internalized mental anguish are at the heart of the tale and these parts are handled with just the right amount of exposition; both in what is told and what is held back, it is a fine balance Tartt has walked with aplomb. So when Theo loses his mother, we feel his pain immensely enough to empathize with him, as we do with his confusion over his dad’s behavior. Mrs. Barbour’s reserved affection and Hobie’s more homely warmth endear them to us, as does Boris’ more boisterous antics. I got reminded of this book in my to-read pile when I heard about the movie on the same which came out recently. Sadly, it appears the moviemakers didn’t do a great job of adapting the source as it was a critical and commercial failure. On reading the book this is understandable. The breadth and scope of the lives played out here would be very tough to compress into a two hour movie. Yet, for those of you daunted by the size and the lukewarm response to the film adaptation, this book is a must read for any literature lover. Let’s hope Donna Tartt doesn’t take another decade to come out with her next work.