What struck me about The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt, 2014) as I read it was that I wanted it to be over even as I was eager to continue reading. The chronicle of a 12-year-old boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but who gains possession of a certain painting, is richly detailed. The wealth of detail can be fatiguing. The main character Theodore Decker is a character difficult at times to care about. As an adolescent and later he is a habitual heavy user of drugs and alcohol, and at times his future seems dark. His good friend Boris, whom he meets when he goes to live with his father in Las Vegas, is a source of anarchy and self-destruction but ultimately as well of a kind of salvation. As he becomes involved in dealing and restoring furniture under the tutelage of the older man Hobie who takes him in, he sells as valuable antiques items that have been restored—they are fraudulent. And then there is the painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch, which he takes with him everywhere, which hangs over him like a black cloud but which he can’t bring himself to return to the museum. But his imperfections, considerable as they are, help us keep things in perspective.
I like the fact that this novel concerns big themes and questions. In that sense it runs counter to current trends in contemporary serious fiction, and that may explain some of the negative reactions it has received. (A Vanity Fair article assessed these reactions, suggesting that a major factor behind them may be simple envy of Tartt’s success.) The themes are such questions as what is the purpose of life in an empty universe, and the value of art, which Tartt, or at least her narrator, regards as eternal.
In the last 40 or so pages of the novel, Boris and then the narrator himself bring it all to a conclusion by explaining what the events of the narrators life have meant, what conclusions they have led him to. This could be a tedious and post-climactic way to defuse a novel that has had a lot of energy, but in fact it makes for a powerfully moving conclusion.
Question: One reason I at times wanted the novel to end before it did may have had to do with the sense that it was going nowhere. It traces Theo’s life through his mother’s death, his time with the Barbour family that takes him in, his life with his father in Las Vegas, his years with Hobie in New York, his engagement, and then the fateful trip to Antwerp. We read through these pages interested in how Theo’s fate is going to work itself out, but without a sense that there is some underlying purpose or theme to it all. Tartt in masterful fashion does impose order and meaning on Theo’s life in the concluding pages of the novel, but I would have appreciated some faint hints of this resolution earlier in the book.
The great scene in this novel is the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo’s conversation with a dying old man he encounters in the rubble—from which almost everything else in the story develops—is powerful.