A Book Review
Written By Auriane Desombre
If I had to sum up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in one word, it would be: long. A lot of other people have picked ‘Dickensian’ as their word, but as a former English major, I can confirm that’s just literary academia speech for long. Not that this is a bad thing. But at a comfortable 800 pages, it is The Goldfinch’s most immediate – and most daunting – characteristic.
Delving into those 800 pages (picture Clark Kent ripping off his shirt to reveal the Superman S, please. It’s really long), I met Theo Decker, now an adult, looking back on his experiences as a teenager. He starts with the most harrowing day of his life, when his beloved mother dies in a terrorist attack at the Met. One of the attack’s few survivors, Theo is knocked out when the bombs go off, and comes to next to an old man. In his dying moments, the man gives Theo his ring, and gestures to The Goldfinch, a (real) painting by Carel Fabritius. Drawn to the painting in part because of the old man’s death, and in larger part because of his mother’s love for it, Theo smuggles it out of the museum.
The following years of Theo’s life are, to put it simply, a mess. Weighed with guilt and grief over his mother’s death, Theo finds himself caught in custody snafus, intense friendships, and an increasingly concerning amount of drugs. Throughout the tumult that makes up the rest of his childhood, the painting, carefully wrapped and preserved with whatever he has on hand, provides a source of solace in a world that seems to have otherwise abandoned him.
When I first read the book, I worried at times that the plot meandered too much, especially since it often feels like Theo doesn’t have much control over his circumstances – that things simply happen to him without any momentum on his part. However, this makes the moments where he does take control all the more arresting, and (without spoiling anything) Tartt weaves all her seeming tangents together in the book’s remarkable final paragraphs.
And even though some might in the moment feel tangential, those meanderings take us to wonderful places. In a sweeping overview of class in the US, Tartt takes us from Upper East Side snobbery to the Las Vegas outskirts high school drug scene, from art and antiques to the crime that circulates stolen paintings and faked antique furniture. Theo makes his way through all these different walks of life, struggling (in sometimes dubious ways) to figure out where he belongs, and Tartt does not shy away from the specifics. Much of the book’s length is due to the exquisite detail with which Tartt infuses every aspect of Theo’s experience, and the context and backstory she provides for every character’s place in his life.
But more important than the plot itself is Tartt’s prose, which is beautifully crafted. Her light touch with language creates an immersive world that makes the dense length not only manageable, but pleasant. Carrying it around so you can read it during your commute is less pleasant, since the book weighs much more than the bird it’s named after, but it’s worth it for the way Tartt’s stunning writing unites the different facets of life she portrays, creating a breathtaking reading experience.