Book Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a very readable tale – despite the length (it definitely qualifies as a door stopper). It has been described as Dickensian – there is an immense amount of beautifully written detail capturing atmosphere and character. Tartt describes place in a deftly chosen collage of images time and again.

The story follows the twists and turns of the life of Theo Decker from the age of 13, who by a quirk of fate happens to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a bomb goes off. Theo survives, but his beloved mother does not. The only point where the book lost its pull was in the middle section of the book when he is living in Las Vegas and meets Boris (a similarly lost youth, and the author of subsequent events) could have been shortened – it dragged at times, but then it was setting up the rest of the story.

The book led us to talk about how often a seemingly calm exterior is concealing a welter of emotions – how often, even professionals will fail to spot when someone is suffering from emotional difficulties – ‘smiling depression’. Theo doesn’t connect with the well meaning adults offering him counselling and support – the depth of his grief is too great for him to express – and as the book goes on there are hints that he is more damaged than he reveals (the unreliable narrator).

We also discussed the antiques trade – the role of provenance, the ageing process and the making of forgeries – and extraordinary prices paid – but then an object is worth what someone is willing to pay!

The painting at the centre of the book is of a goldfinch chained to a perch – and like the bird the boy seems trapped by circumstances. I kept hoping that Theo wouldn’t sabotage his own chances, but this happens again and again – sometimes through his own actions, but often because of circumstances outside his control. This was one of the themes of the book – the role of fate/luck in our lives. Another question raised is: do good outcomes negate bad actions?