Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Goldfinch

I got on the list at the library for the audio version of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch 7 months ago, and finally got to have a turn at it in Dec/Jan.  It was wonderful--all 26 disks of it.  I'm so glad that I went for the audio version as I think the reader, David Pittu, really added so much to the story with his voices for the various characters, particularly Boris.  I ended up getting a paper copy to finish the book because I couldn't finish it by the due date (6 weeks doing errands in the car couldn't quite get me to the end of the book), and I missed Pittu's accents and inflections and overall narration in the closing pages of the book.

Much as I liked the book, and it is a long, sweeping story, I admit that I was ready for the part in Las Vegas to be over much sooner than the actual story called for, but then I love reading stories set in NYC, where the bulk of the story took place.

In a nutshell, The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, who we meet as a 13 year old boy who loses his mother in a horrific terrorist attack, and spends the next 10 years of his life essentially dealing with the post-traumatic stress that just about consumes him.  I think Tartt did a terrific job of getting inside the head of a 13 year old, which is a jumble of half-learned truths and a whole lot of misconceptions.

At first, I was thinking that Tartt was brave to choose 1st person for her narrative--after all she's a middle-aged woman--but then I remembered that her other major work, The Secret History, was also a 1st person story with a college-aged man being the protagonist.  Now, it seems that Tartt has a knack for getting in the head of criminally-oriented, self-effacing young men.

I like stories the springboard off of art--I'm a big fan of The Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn, for example--but this one is different.  Rather than giving the reader a fictionalized backstory of a painting, Tartt uses a 1654 painting of a goldfinch by Carel Fabritius as the lynchpin in Theo's personal story.  The painting triggers catastrophe in Theo's life and his response to it and relationship to it shape almost every action and reaction that he has in his life.

As with The Secret History, I was profoundly skeptical that any adolescent could consume the amount of drugs and alcohol that Theo and his Russian friend, Boris, do during their time in Las Vegas, but that could be tempered by my middle-aged fuddy-duddy nature shining through.

I did like the character of Boris quite a bit--I have to say, he is the most engaging criminal adolescent since I met the Artful Dodger in Dickens' Oliver Twist when I was in my teens.

I found myself thinking about all the various parents and surrogate parents and came to view The Goldfinch as a study in parenting to some degree.  There's Theo's mother, of course--why she didn't spell out guardianship for Theo in her will, given the powderkeg that was Theo's father completely baffled me--apart from that glaring omission she was a good parent.

Theo's father and Xandra were complete enablers and leading contenders for "worst parents in the world," except that Boris's father could probably edge them out.  The Barbours are weird parents, whose offspring reflect their misaligned approach to parenting...from bully/drifter Platt, to poor Andy, to ice-princess Kitzy, to TedKennedyesque Toddy.

Hobie is wonderful, nuturing parent, although perhaps a tad too trusting and naive.  I sincerely hope that Bill Nighy gets the role in the upcoming movie version as he is who I pictured in the role from the minute I met Hobie in the book.

Bill Nighy as Hobie in my dream cast for the movie.
Welty, must get the prize for best parent in the book, to both Theo and the wonderfully drawn Pippa, my absolutely favorite character in the book.  I found it perfect that she and Boris, the angel and devil characters who sit on Theo's shoulder and try to guide him, instinctively liked each other.  Given my view of Boris and Pippa as Janus-type guardian angels, you can argue that they play foster parent roles in Theo's life as well.

I loved the writing of The Goldfinch--Tartt created a rich, varied, multi-textured, layered world that was entirely believable but also an alternate universe to the one I inhabit.  I found Theo's story fascinating and the pacing perfect--focusing on minutes and days for chapters and then leaping forward by years to focus again minutely.

The story (art and the art underworld), the characters, the writing, the details were all spot on.  Great book, worth the time to read or listen to it.  Much, much better than The Secret History.


  1. Great commentary on this one Jane. I have heard so much about this one and I really want to read it.

    I love the idea of tying other art forms to literature like this book does with the painting.

  2. I have this on my kindle, but haven't found the motivation to read it yet. A read/listen combination sounds like a good idea!

  3. I keep hearing about this one, and it is on my back burner list. Seems like most people have at least a reservation or two in their thumbs ups, though. Thanks for your review.

  4. I keep thinking about this one months after I've finished it but I absolutely agree about the Vegas scene being much too long. The writing was just so good.

  5. I tried to reread The Secret History last year, and I couldn't get into it at all. I remember loving it when it first came out, but it seems as if my tastes have changed since then. I wonder what I would think of this one.

  6. I thought this was a great read and really ambitious, but it kind of lost me at the ending, which I found disappointing and over-the-top. I still haven't read The Secret History so I can't compare them.

    And I love Bill Nighy in anything -- he's one of those actors that elevates whatever he's in, just by his existence. He's pretty much the best thing in any movie or TV show.