Book Review: The #Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Central to this novel is the painting, “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fibritus. Following Tracy Chevalier in her “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Susannah Kaysen with “Girl Interrupted” (at her music), Donna Tartt has taken a work of art and woven a novel around it. In “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, the actual painting of the painting takes place in the novel. In “Girl Interrupted”, the writer sees the painting in a museum and sees it as a metaphor for part of her life. Fabritus’s painting is of a small bird with a fine chain keeping it near its perch. In “The Goldfinch” the painting is physically involved in the plot, but is also a metaphor for the life of the narrator Theodore Decker as he finds himself living a paradox of life and constraint.
I liked the opening of the novel, not least because it was set in a hotel room in Amsterdam – and I have plans to go there soon, so I was kind of hoping that our character would go to some nice cafes and sample some tasty cheeses, like a personal travel pioneer. Instead, the narrator took us back to his childhood and to the incident that shattered his life and set him on the road that led him to the hotel room in Amsterdam.
!Maybe this bit is a spoiler!
I don’t think this is a spoiler. It happens very near the start. It is the inciting moment for the whole book. The narrator is caught up in a terrorist attack on a museum. It is very well crafted and very surreal. In the chaos of the aftermath, he leaves the scene with instructions from a dying man and a priceless painting. The plot of the novel therefore follows the fate of the boy and the painting, with the reader aware that this will ultimately lead him to Amsterdam.
!This isn’t a spoiler!
The good thing about the novel was that I didn’t see the twist coming, so that was good.
!This might be!
The novel starts in NYC and then the boy moves to Las Vegas, Nevada. This section seems to go on and on and on, in a spiral of boredom, neglect, drug and alcohol abuse and social isolation. The narrator’s family is beyond dysfunction – mirroring the failed development he lives on, with empty homes and a general bankruptcy, both literal and metaphorical. While reading this, the reader does doubt the necessity of all of this bleakness and profound emptiness, but, with hindsight, all of this wasted time in the middle of the novel allowed for Tartt to set up the twist I didn’t see coming.
I am surprised, though, that the publisher didn’t take a shredder to a considerable percentage of the novel; a touch of the JK Rowling in the inclusion of inoffensive but extraneous pages. I suppose one could argue that the many many pages devoted to the emptiness of the narrator’s life were a structural metaphor for that emptiness. But I think the reader got the point.
(Speaking of JK Rowling, there was a total intertextual echo of the mirror of Erised.)
However, my favourite bit about the book was probably the narrator’s questioning of the ‘be true to yourself’ thing that the world likes:
“How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney Princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What happens if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted -?”