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Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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The Goldfinch is truly a Dickensian novel, as many people have already observed. It is the odyssey of Theo, his coming of age story, and his meeting many oddball characters throughout his life. As in The Secret History, the plot is not the mainstay here, but it is not a plotless novel as many Literary Fiction works are. Tartt, in fact, relishes silly plot twists and many dramatic scenes that are very unlike any literary book. To be fair with her, she had expressed her displeasure with the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, citing the time when her influences, including Dickens, wrote novels that did not respect that distinction. They wrote literary fiction that was consumed by the masses. Tartt has been highly successful in bridging that gap, writing a novel that won the Pulitzer prize, and sold 13 million copies simultaneously.

Tartt’s prose is masterly, and her narrative is gripping. You just slide into the narrative and turn pages because of Tartt’s mastery over the form. She builds intrigue and introduces predictable twists that urge you to continue. Of course, there is the device of “The Goldfinch,” a painting worth USD40 Million that Theo is obsessed with. Tartt keeps the painting as the thread that ties many loose pieces of the narrative where Theo switches foster families, closest friends, devices to get high, and towns. The whole drama has the emotional thread of Theo’s love for his mother and his guilt about losing her, for which he partly blames himself. The two threads are tied at the incident in the very beginning that Tartt masterfully describes. That incident also introduces Theo to Pippa and Welty. Pippa would play a substantial role in the novel and in Theo’s life, and Welty is some kind of unseen force behind a lot of narrative.

Theo’s first-person narration adds intimacy and an opportunity for Tartt to hide things from the reader, the same devices Tartt used in “The Secret History.” Unlike “The Secret History” though, “The Goldfinch” is narrated by the main protagonist and not a distant observer of the main events in the novel. This change makes “The Goldfinch” much more intense, but at the same time much less suspenseful.

Tartt is a master at describing relationships and keeping them positive and intimate. Theo’s relationship with Boris forms the core of the book and is very Dickensian. Their lack of manners and concern for rules, intensity, and homoerotic tendencies make the relationship unique. Contrast that with Theo’s relationship with Andy, probably not as close as Boris’s, but equally essential for him to, and you see Tartt’s mastery in using language to create a mood.

As many people have observed, the ultimate Dickensian character is Hobie, whom Theo meets because of Welty. Hobie is portrayed as an oddball so lovable that he is unbelievable. Tartt probably needed him to balance the chaos that was there in Theo’s life. Hobie’s passion for his craft, his love for Theo and Pippa, and his philosophy of staying a bricoleur, all of that adds warmth to the book.

At this point, I want to laud Tartt’s ability to describe places. Hobie’s house is a place that you fall in love with. Theo keeps on talking about the image of the house being something that gives him peace of mind, but that is true from the reader’s perspective as well. Tartt creates a picture of the place that is so beautiful; you can close your eyes and be there and can understand why Theo loved it so much. Contrasting that with Theo’s father’s house in Las Vegas, a house with no inherent coziness and one that gets warmth only because of the intimate friendship of Theo and Boris, you realize how much places add to one’s life.

Theo’s relationships with Pippa and Kitsey are not so well described. They are not conceptualized with the same warmth and rigor. In fact, I found the entire arc of Theo’s adult life after he encounters Platt and gets in touch with the Barbour family, not a convincing one. The book would not have missed much if the entire thing was not there. In fact, the whole arc of Theo and Boris’s trip is also not so integral to the book’s entire plot. It makes sense that several critics have been frustrated with the lack of coherent plot in the later pages of the book. It is okay, and you read on, and it feels good, but it is not as gripping as the earlier part of the novel.

So, what does Tartt wants to convey through the novel? Many people thought that “The Secret History” was about the dark underbelly of academia, a lament that education does not make people good. Is there any such theme in “The Goldfinch”? People have talked about the transience of life, the pain of existence, and the support of relationships to lead a good life as the book’s core themes. I think Tartt makes that point in the monologue of Theo in the end. She talks about how The Goldfinch, the painting, is not good art because it communicates something universal that is unique and important. It is good, says Tartt, in the guise of Theo, because it affects people at an intense level. That impact is unique for every human being. Good art is not good because it contains some common principles that everyone can abstract from it. It is good because it makes every consumer feel in a very unique way. Hence good art is like a good conversation; it is a one-on-one communication between two people. Tartt has been able to express that really well through Theo’s obsession with the painting, and the change in his personality due to the existence of the same.

In the end, is it worth reading 880 pages of this little tome? I think it is. I would recommend it for people who like literary novels and people who like coming of age or family plots. I would give this 4.5/5.

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