The Goldfinch quickly became the must-read novel of 2014, with people adding it to their book lists and Kindles while lamenting the page length or raving about its worthiness of a Pulitzer. Some literary critics deemed it a new "Harry Potter" for adults -- and not in a good way -- that lacked beautiful prose, a sturdy message and well thought-out characters. You can read more about those criticisms here; it's certainly worth asking why a specific book becomes such a hit. (I know I asked it in light of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, for instance!)
Although I write short book reviews on here, I'm not a book critic -- and there's a significant difference between the two. I read things that challenge my normative ways of thinking, educate me, or flat-out interest me for one reason or another. Sometimes I read books that I don't like very much, but I don't usually blog about those unless there's a reason for my distaste that I want to explore. Sometimes you just don't care for a book, even if its popular, and that's okay. (Post to come on that topic!) But I'm not a critic in the sense that I'm reviewing books based on language, form, style, etc. Right now, I'd rather share what I've read, why it speaks to me, and why you might consider reading it, too.
So, The Goldfinch. I never heard of Donna Tartt before this book came out. There are a ton of recommendations about her first book, actually, called A Secret History, that I will likely read one day. Honestly, I'm most amazed at the fact that it took her 11 years to write Goldfinch. 11 years, people! That's incredible diligence to a concept and a writing project.
Goldfinch starts with Theo Decker, our first-person narrator and protagonist, and follows him throughout the core of his life. At age 13, he lives with his mother in New York City, and adores spending time with her. His mother is beautiful and smart, and his father walked out on them ages ago, so it makes sense he would lean so heavily on his one parental figure.
One day, they stop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see his mother's favorite painting: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (note: this is a real painting). Theo notices two people in the gift shop, a little red-haired girl and an old man, and falls in love with the girl from a distance. Seconds later, a bomb goes off, destroying Theo's life as he knows it. He discovers the same old man in the shattered museum post-explosion, who hands him a ring and a confusing message. In a panic, Theo grabs The Goldfinch off the wall, thinking that's what the man wanted him to do. Once he leaves the museum with the painting, hiding it in his backpack, his life takes a series of twists and turns, and Tartt carries her readers along for the ride.
The focus of the novel isn't that Theo stole a priceless painting; it's more general, in the sense of, what do our small actions add up to over the course of a life? Can one decision made as a child influence and affect all decisions going forward? (Tartt says emphatically, yes.) How do we cope with gigantic loss? Are certain mistakes too big for redemption?
A few favorite quotes:
"What if maybe the opposite is true as well? Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions--? Where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes--the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right? I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between 'good' and 'bad' as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can't exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing the best I know how. But you--wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking 'what if,' 'what if.' 'Life is cruel.' 'I wish I had died instead of.' Well--think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no--hang on--this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can't get there any other way?"
"Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only--if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things--beautiful things--that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?"
"We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us. We can't escape who we are."
I felt enraptured by the story all the way until the very end, where Tartt turned quite subjective on themes of beauty and art. I don't think is a negative aspect of the novel, but it did make it hard to remain engaged in finishing it -- especially after hundreds and hundreds of pages. If you're interested in reading The Goldfinch, don't rush it. Take your time, enjoy the plot and characters for what they are, and consider the duality of your own choices within the context of your own life. The Goldfinch isn't the best book I've ever read, but it's a very good book, and one worth reading.