Book Review: The Goldfinch

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You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, and by virtue of that, I was familiar with its cover long before I knew anything else about the book. It was always prominently displayed in bookstore entrances, and always checked out at the local library, even now, roughly three years after its initial publication. It happened to be sitting on the shelf when I stopped by the library a few weeks ago, and of course I snatched it up.

After slogging through nearly 800 pages, I have mixed feelings about The Goldfinch. It’s a modern Dickensian bildungsroman about Theodore Decker, a boy whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While somehow miraculously escaping the wreckage relatively unscathed, Theo grabs Carel Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch. The story follows Theo’s life as he wanders from home to home, dealing with his grief over his mother’s death, his PTSD from the attack, and his relationships with others affected by the attack.

I’m a fan of Dickens, especially Great Expectations, so I enjoyed the Dickensian nature of the narrative, which focuses on Theo’s character development. Theo, while not always likeable, is generally a shrewd, clever, and surprisingly compassionate character. His love for his mother and his kindness toward Mrs. Barbour redeem many of his more questionable actions.

In addition, the actual prose of the novel is detailed and simply lovely. I saw many reviews that were annoyed by the level of detail, but, for the most part, I found it helped me to imagine the works of art, furniture, and New York winters integral to the plot and to the themes of the book, which revolve around art and, as cheesy as it sounds, the power of beauty over one’s life.

That being said…I felt the book was unnecessarily long. Many passages, especially those detailing drug-fuelled romps, felt repetitive. I suppose it could be Tartt’s intention to make these passages irritatingly repetitive and cyclical to show the negative impacts of drug, but it was too much. I felt that the book would have benefitted from a much stricter editor to eliminate the repetitive passages, and especially to trim down that terribly preachy last chapter. I was almost falling asleep at that point, and I usually make it a point to thoroughly read the last chapter of any book I’ve put time into. I also felt that there were significant plotholes: for one, how did Theo manage to escape the scene of such a major crime scene with no one noticing him or finding him suspicious, especially on his trek home? Similarly, the novel, despite seeming to take place in the 2010s (?) also has a strange relationship with technology: smartphones and the Internet are hardly mentioned, even though there are many scenes involving characters communicating over vast distances and conducting research. It seemed off somehow.

YES OR NO?: As of now, I feel neutral about The Goldfinch. While it fulfills some of my criteria for a worthwhile read (detailed, skillful prose and interesting, dynamic characters), its length and repetitive story arcs bored me. Definitely not a must-read.

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