The story opens with a young boy, Theo, surviving a terrorist bombing in a museum only to lose his mother and everything he knew about his life. But that’s not the only thing that’s lost. Theo has stolen one of the most famous paintings in the museum, a goldfinch chained to a perch, a painting his mother loved and adored. The rest of the novel follows Theo as he navigates life with no mother, life with his father, life with a spectacularly well-written character we all know, love and hate, as Boris, all while the fate of the painting hangs in the balance. Eventually, almost 600 pages later, we end up in the art underworld with Theo facing more than just decisions about love and marriage.
The Goldfinch is a novel that made me astonished by the power and brilliance of language. From someone who has studied English Literature as a degree, sometimes it’s hard to find an author whose very sentences are so very captivating. That was the power of Tartt’s prose. And it’s with the power of words that nothing in this novel appears as two-dimensional. Every single character is developed so much so that you find yourself saying ‘oh, I loved that taxi driver, hope he makes a return, I loved the door men, I wish we saw more of them.’ The characters are complicated and nuanced as real, individualised people.
Even the setting and the props. As a reader, you learn so much about furniture and wood, so much about sailing and sickness, about art, philosophy, childhood bullies and Russian drug-dealers. Everything has detail; the way mental health is described, the way a teenage boy feels after taking acid, the immortality and desperation of art and the way people age and find one another after so long, in the unlikeliest of places and times.
The novel is part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part exploration of the value of ones’ sense of self versus the value of art. The story expects a lot from the reader – attention, emotion, sympathy and empathy. To not hate these characters in their times of need and despair. There’s one moment on the bus with Theo where I felt so protective over Popchyk, one moment when he’s wrapping the painting up to go with his dad where I felt anxious protectiveness over the painting. One moment when Boris returns after, and much like Theo, you find yourself overwhelmed with emotion. I felt with these characters. But I also hated these characters.
One moment I adored Theo and I adored Boris – even if he did ramble on a lot and was a very very bad influence. The next, I hated them. Theo was an arrogant, entitled piece of work (the way he spoke of Pippa infuriated me). And he wasn’t alone, Boris himself was extremely misogynistic and violent, which considering his background, is understandable but it did not stop me from disliking him at times. Parts of this book I loved, others I hated. Sometimes I wanted to praise it, other times I wanted to abandon it (ignoring the fact it is literally 860 pages long with some REALLY long chapters – why don’t authors hear my pleas for short chapters?)
Tartt also needed to cut out a lot of the repetitive detail and hone in on the last 100-200 pages. I was incredibly disappointed with the ending in that I almost thought the whole underworld criminal plot-line was rushed and Theo lost his voice in the end. While philosophising about art is nice and all and really does for some excellent quotes, it didn’t feel like Theo.
Overall, The Goldfinch is a brilliant story with memorable characters and most of the book is incredibly well done and fun to read. It’s a masterful story that is quite different from so much of modern fiction. Yet, there are hard-hitting moments, moments you’ll find yourself in a flurry of hate and disappointment when reading and moments that need to be looked at in detail in regard to the rest of the narrative.