Donna Tartt, 2013
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Sometimes a book like this—long anticipated—arrives to such high expectations it can only disappoint. Not so The Goldfinch. Heralded by nearly all, Tartt's third novel can be found at the top of (or near) every "Best of 2013" list. It's remarkable.
Theo Decker is 13 when his world is rocked by an explosion in a New York museum. His mother perishes in the blast, but Theo survives, crawling through the wreckage with a priceless Dutch painting in his backpack. This is the Goldfinch of the title, and for Leo it becomes a talisman for all he lost and all he yearns for.
Although he's first sent to live with a wealthy family on Park Avenue, Theo's ne'er-do-well father eventually turns up and sweeps him away to Las Vegas. There, living in the hollowed out suburbs, Theo is befriended by Boris, a Russian-Ukraine schoolmate who initiates him into the world of alcohol and drugs. Boris—perhaps Tartt's most brilliant creation—is a wily young fellow with an outsized zest for life and wisdom beyond his years. He plays the Artful Dodger to Theo's Oliver Twist.
Theo gets himself back to New York where he finds shelter and work with Hobie, a kindly antiques restorer and owner of an old curiosity shop. Yet in all his peregrinations, Theo's grief never leaves him. Tartt's writing is particularly sharp in depicting the pain of loss and guilt of survival. The Goldfinch, then, is Theo's journey to restore his blasted soul, to become whole.
"Dickensian" is how many refer to this coming-of-age novel. The book's length (800 pages: hello David Copperfield), its plot structure, use of coincidence, indelible characters (or caricatures), and thematic concerns recall Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, parts of the book, like parts of Dickens, feel overly long and drawn out. But still...what a read!
Tartt also tackles the big questions—about the operation of fate versus randomness in the world, about art's ability to both transport and distract us, and about what constitutes a good life.
The Goldfinch is a considerable undertaking but well worth the effort. The novel deserves its place at the top of the Best Book lists, not just this year but in years to come.
See The Goldfinch Reading Guide.
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