Book Review – The Goldfinch

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By: John Kerrens

‘The Goldfinch’ is Donna Tartt’s long-awaited third novel, her first in 11 years. A Dickensian Bildungsroman with a splash of Dostoyevsky and an ongoing Harry Potter joke that doesn’t work, ‘The Goldfinch’ has divided readers’ opinions but many regard it as a minor masterpiece.

13-year-old Theo Decker is caught up in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His mother is killed but Theo, in shock, finds his way out of the carnage, mistakenly taking with him a painting called ‘The Goldfinch’ by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, he also manages to fall in love with a young girl, Pippa, who also survived the explosion.

Theo’s absent father is a deadbeat who ran out on the family some time earlier and isn’t notably missed. Alone in New York, Theo moves in with the wealthy Barbour family in Manhattan and is happy there, but ends up in Las Vegas when his dad, heavily in debt to gangsters, tracks him down.

In Las Vegas, now living with his father, Theo makes friends with a Ukrainian boy, Boris, who is empathetic. The two boys entertain themselves with booze, Coke and Oxycontin; their conversations being reminiscent of Charles Bukowsky (in ‘Ham on Rye’) discovering alcohol as a child. Boris is a wonderful character, well-realised and much loved by fans of the book.

Some years pass and Theo, now in his 20’s, becomes a successful (and frequently crooked) antique dealer, finally ending up in Amsterdam in a violent climax.

‘The Goldfinch’ arrives with considerable baggage, Ms Tartt’s previous novels; ‘The Secret History’ and ‘The Little Friend,’ having had a massive literary impact worldwide.

Unlike her previous two books, The Goldfinch has divided the opinions of readers, with some dismissing it as lacking merit entirely while others take the opposite view, regarding The Goldfinch as an important literary work, even a masterpiece.

Almost everything in the book works beautifully. Just as ‘The Little Friend’ presented a very evocative view of the Deep South, ‘The Goldfinch’ elicits its own strong views of Las Vegas, Amsterdam and, best of all, New York City. This is the Manhattan of Park Avenue Duplexes, personable doormen and never an empty Taxi in sight.

Pippa was not as strongly-written as she needed to be. As a living representation of the Goldfinch McGuffin, which in turn is the only connection Theo has with his beloved mother, Pippa should have been given more page time. Instead, she only figures in to the story as an ethereal character with a tenuous connection to Theo. The relationship between Theo and Pippa should be stronger, like Theo’s relationship with Boris. The story’s violent climax is downplayed fortunately, as the book is already about the potential violence of extreme materialism. One of the characters speculates that materialism bordering on idolatry could be “corrosive to the soul”. Ms Tartt has succeeded in turning ‘The Goldfinch,’ both the book and the painting, into objects of idolatry.

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