Book Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is a perfect novel from the standpoint of structure, description, and character development. If you want to study a novel to see how it’s done, this is the one. Great characters, interesting locations, and brilliant writing. For example:

“And I had let rip such an eyewatering torrent of filth that even Hobie–not understanding a word–had leaned back laughing with his hands over his ears.”

“…her little paper-skinned hand glittering with rose-cut diamonds.”

“…her perfume–unmistakable, white blossoms with a powdery strangeness at the heart–was like a blown curtain over an open window.”

“…with opiates I was relaxed, I was tolerant, I was up for anything, I could stand pleasantly for hours in unbearable situations listening to any old tiresome or ridiculous bullshit…”

There were rare occasions when I thought the writing approached being overdone, but they’re not worth quoting.

The story follows Theodore (Theo) Decker after a calamitous event at an art museum whereby his mother is killed. In the aftermath he ends up taking a rare (and probably priceless) Dutch painting of a goldfinch. He is just thirteen.

Guilt and fear related to taking the painting haunt him for the rest of the story. He didn’t intend to keep it, but now he fears returning it, particularly when he sees that other people who took paintings at the time have received long jail sentences. So, he hangs on to it and hides it well into adulthood.

This is a literary novel; it’s largely character-driven. We spend a lot of time getting to know Theo, and then getting to know his friends Andy and (later) Boris. There are long stretches of the novel where not much happens by way of action.

But it’s not boring, unless you’re the kind of person who needs constant action. If you take it for what it is, that is, a novel that takes its time developing characters and their relationships in a very interesting way, then you’ll enjoy it. 

For example, one of the central characters, Hobie, is in the business of repairing and restoring antique furniture. The author goes into a lot of detail about that, describing the furniture and the process of fixing it. There are scenes where she talks about art. This book cannot be gulped. It has to be swirled in the glass, smelled, tasted, held in your mouth, then swallowed. If you let yourself do that, you’ll certainly appreciate it.

Although it’s a literary novel, it contains violence and dark elements. There is cussing, smoking, and lots of drinking and drug use. Drug addiction, alcoholism, and puking. There is thieving and lying, and killing. So, when I say to take it and swirl it around in your mouth, I don’t mean that it’s touchy-feely. It is not chick-lit, or even women’s lit. It’s a literary novel that even a guy like me can enjoy. And thank God, there’s no sex.

The book explores many themes. Although a lot of what happens to Theo is not his fault, such as his mother being killed, his dad not being around, his grandparents not wanting him, a lot of his problems come from his own actions. We have no choice in some things, but can make important choices in others.

One interesting point the author made was that good can sometimes come from bad acts.