The short: 3.5/5 ✦. Standard existential novel fare; though well-written, it is both horrifyingly tragic and unrealistically contrived.
This is a hard book to review, as I’m not used to reading adult novels. (Not those kind, you naughty minds.) My tastes and preferences are more aligned with YA and non-fiction, as I usually find adult fiction to be incredibly pretentious. And honestly, The Goldfinch was no exception.
For once, the front cover blurb didn’t spoil everything, at least not beyond the main character’s mother dying. That whole segment is incredibly well-done; Tartt amazingly captured the disorientation and fear surrounding such a traumatic event and the numb terror afterward. I wasn’t sure what direction this novel would go – I’ve heard it compared to Dickens, which didn’t inspire much excitement from me – and I thought maybe it would be one long, terrible story of a boy forever reduced to the trash heap of society once the only good person in his life was gone.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD! (Sorry, but I can’t find a way to discuss this novel more without going into plot details.)
To be fair, it kinda starts off pretty horrible and defeatist. First, Theo’s dad ditches their family. Then he gets suspended from school on negligible charges, followed by his mom dying in a horrific bombing, where he not only has to watch an old man die, he also must escape the crumbling building – and then accidentally steals a painting on his way out, the titular The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Theo manages to make it home after being ignored and yelled out by emergency workers (despite the fact that he must obviously look like he was nearly blown up and likely has a concussion), and after a few hours, social workers show up. I couldn’t see how this situation could get any worse for this poor kid, especially when no one can find his dad and his paternal grandparents clearly don’t want him. But then a stroke of luck! (Or: the first of many contrivances.)
Theo remembers his conveniently rich friend with a conveniently welcome family in a conveniently open home. After initial awkwardness, given the reason for Theo’s arrival, they warm up to him, even hinting at a formal adoption. Then tragedy returns with the reappearance of his dad, who decides that he’s kinda responsible for his own kid, and drags him off to Las Vegas, where he’s been living with his hot girlfriend and a shiny Lexus.
Up to this point, I was really invested, zooming through these first 200 or so pages, entranced by the tight and controlled, yet easy, flowing writing and the whole mess that is Theo’s life. The Barbours are nice and all, but the family has its own issues that isolates Theo from really feeling at home. He also (conveniently) finds the business partner of the old man from the museum, Hobie, and befriends him, though he keeps the secret of the painting to himself. All great stuff. But once in Vegas, I dunno, it kinda goes off the rails into very stereotypical territory and doesn’t relent for the rest of the book. His dad is still an alcoholic (of course), his girlfriend is vapid (why not), he meets Ukrainian/Russian/Polish Boris (admittedly the best character, though, despite being a walking, talking caricature), who introduces him to drugs and liquor. The two boys spend their entire time being high, drunk, or both, and not much happens at all besides a lot of talk on life and abuse and such. The writing was still beautiful, and I never got bored, per se, but I found myself skimming along the more philosophical passages.
The second part of the book closes with Theo’s dad being killed in a traffic collision, as he was running away from loan sharks after him for gambling debts. Theo doesn’t want to be forced into the foster care system, so he runs away back to New York, leaving Boris behind. Conveniently, Hobie is willing to take this snot-nosed kid into his home (Theo had a cold upon arrival) and basically raise him to manhood. He also conveniently teaches Theo the ways of his trade, which is restoring antique furniture. For some reason, Theo doesn’t find this painfully boring, and despite being quite intelligent, he wastes the remainder of his high school and college years with meaningless classes (and drugs), and devotes his career to the antique business. Which, fine, whatever, but of course, he just happens to be really good at it.
Eight years on, he’s made tons of money for Hobie and the shop, conveniently being a world-class salesman. He does do illegal things to make it all happen, namely selling Hobie’s fake restorations as the real thing, but he’s only interested in his stolen painting (hidden in a storage unit), drugs, and Pippa, a girl who was also in the museum bombing, though more severely injured. Theo is painfully in love with her, and there’s probably much to be inferred about her merely being a replacement for his mother or a reflection of himself or something, but Tartt actually pretty much says all that herself, and I wasn’t invested enough by this point to even care.
To make a long story short, Theo has a good life with a job, a fiancee, and a family of sorts. But he only cares about someone finding out about The Goldfinch, and that one little worry (seriously blown out of proportion, as no one knows he has it, and those who suspect can’t prove a thing) ruins all his interactions with everybody. Theo simply refuses to be happy and repeatedly drowns his sorrows in drugs and booze. I didn’t realize how easy it was for a fifteen-year-old to get drugs at school, nor how easy for a twenty-five-year-old to get them on the street, but Theo manages quite well. I get he is severely traumatized from the bombing and losing his mother, and dealing with PTSD is a major theme of the book, but his destructive behavior is terribly annoying to read about, especially since Pippa in contrast deals with it in a healthier way, and then everything still manages to turn out peachy keen for him. Boris returns, informs Theo that he himself stole the painting back in Vegas, and promises to find it for him. Theo, meanwhile, finds out his fiancée has been cheating on him, but they both end up not caring too much about it, and then Boris drags him off to Amsterdam to be part of this wild setup to get the painting back (BUT WHY? I DON’T UNDERSTAND, YOU WERE SO WORRIED ABOUT PEOPLE FINDING OUT ABOUT IT, WHY PUT IT BACK IN YOUR LIFE??), and Theo ends up shooting someone and nearly dying of flu in a Dutch hotel waiting to hear back from Boris, who has disappeared. This latter bit is long, convoluted, and very stream-of-conscious. Again, I have no complaints about the writing style, but reading page after page of Theo feeling sorry for himself is wearying.
Lo and behold, on the exact day Theo decides he will turn himself in to the Dutch police for killing a man, Boris shows up (on Christmas!) and not only reassures him of his innocence in the affair (the murdered man was a terrible person, no worries), but gives him over two million dollars as his share in reward money: Boris recovered the painting and turned it in to the authorities. This is all told in a complicated explanation that even I found frustrating, and I wasn’t the one holding a bag of bloody clothes.
But yeah, everything conveniently turns out fine: Theo goes back home to America, he has a buttload of money, he doesn’t have to worry about his fiancée, as they break it off but are still friends, his drug problem is controlled, the painting is returned, and though he has to go find all the fakes he sold and reimburse the buyers’ money, it’s cool, he likes traveling and can afford it and everything. The last 20 pages are mostly ramblings on life in general and how everything is all meaningless. Since I was totally convinced Theo was gonna die in Holland, it was a little anti-climatic for me.
I know I used the word “conveniently” quite a lot, but I really can’t think of any other word to describe how eye-rolling the plot got sometimes. Everything was simultaneously horrible for Theo, but everything also turned out okay all the time. OF COURSE he didn’t stay poor and alone. OF COURSE he managed to get a job and a place to stay and a kind mentor and girls and all that. OF COURSE he didn’t get irredeemably addicted to drugs or alcohol. OF COURSE it’s a happy ending, no matter how hard Tartt pretended it wasn’t. I know YA gets a lot of flack for being predictable or relying on stereotypes, but there’s usually enough redeeming features that it’s easily forgiven or even embraced as reader satisfaction. There’s nothing satisfying about The Goldfinch, despite my being able to pick out plot “twists” a mile away. It’s not that I didn’t want them to happen – I would have indeed been sad if Theo had died – but I’ve read all this before in many forms, in many other (arguably better) books.
Basically, this novel felt disjointed, more like two or three books in one. There was too much predictability, with none of the satisfaction of being right – more like a dreary, “OF COURSE that’s what happened.” It is terribly tragic at times, the writing is consistent and amazing, and the characters are quite vibrant. Like most adult novels, though, it’s hard to say exactly what this book is about, easy to be summed up in a two-sentence tagline. I’m sure there’s symbolism and artistic elements that will joyously be dissected by a future high school or college class, but I was more interested in the story, which kinda just potters along. That being said, it’s a good enough book that if you’re into more existential fiction or Pulitzer Prize winners, I would recommend it, even if just for a masterclass on how to write and to write well.
Header image: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published October 22, 2013 by Little, Brown and Company.