The Goldfinch is undoubtedly one of Donna Tartt’s masterpiece novels: an engrossing, heartbreaking, detailed tale of a boy who loses his mother and gains a world famous painting. The opening scenes are some of the most gripping I’ve ever read, we follow Theo Decker, a 12 year old boy, as he visits The Metropolitan Museum in New York with his exuberant, intelligent, art loving mother. What follows is a worst nightmare scenario.
Theo loses his beloved mother in the catastrophe whilst he survives, physically unscathed but forever mentally impacted. As he leaves the scenes he takes with him a priceless painting named ‘The Goldfinch’ which he proceeds to hide and hoard throughout the remainder of his youth. Incidentally, the beautiful little painting exists in real life and lives at The Hague in the Netherlands.
The entire book follows Theo and his life journey through to adulthood and it is he I care for above all whilst reading the story. His voice is clear and developed and I couldn’t help wondering how far his voice was from the author’s own because of the absolute precision of the depiction.
Theo is very much a boy lost in a big city, a kind of Harry Potter figure, a parentless survivor (although he does have an absent, alcoholic father). I couldn’t help taking a motherly stance towards him as I became increasingly concerned about his wellbeing. I cringed when he made bad decisions (multiple times), I rejoiced when he found respite, I wanted to personally thank those who helped him out.
There is one point where he leaves Las Vegas alone, where he has spent a considerable amount of his teenagehood, he takes a bus to New York with his little Maltese dog in his bag who isn’t allowed on the bus. He has just enough money to take the journey and that is it, he has no place to go when he gets there, no relatives to call on. He may as well have been travelling alone into a deep, dark cave to face an angry dragon and the sheer reality of the situation only served to intensify the suspense.
The atmosphere in this book is unparalleled, every time I opened the pages I was immersed in the dark, gothic, cluttered surroundings. The New York in this book is an Old World one filled with antiques, exquisite furniture, dust, old money, European paintings, grimy alleyways, cold weather, rain and creaking floorboards. The time Theo spends in the ultra-modern, soulless vast desert that is Las Vegas serves as a stark contrast to the ancient, mothball environs of New York.
Family, or lack of it, loneliness, survival and friendship loom large in the pages of this book. Theo spends a portion of his youth living with the Barbours, a rich New York family living in a dark, elegant apartment stuffed with priceless antiques.
Their material fortune does little to prevent misery and even though Theo has no blood ties it’s hard to be convinced by the Barbours that he is missing out. It is only when we remember the bond he had with his loving mother when she was alive that we’re reminded family isn’t all misfortune and disaster.
The relationships Theo forms throughout his life become family of a kind. There’s the noble, nieave, kindly Hobie who lives to restore treasured pieces of furniture and there’s Boris Pavlikovsky, a brilliantly drawn character who lives hard and fast, a Russian teen when we first meet him in Las Vegas, wild, savvy, having travelled the world with his businessman father. Then there’s Poppy, the girl who shares Theo’s catastrophic experience, a glowing, fractured character who he adores with every inch of his soul.
The Goldfinch is a masterpiece, 11 years in the making, fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a wonderful, daring, ambitious book, filled with art and humanity. I can’t wait to see what Donna Tartt comes up with next.
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