This week’s read was a very long novel; the paperback copy I read has 864 pages. The Goldfinch was written by Donna Tartt and published in 2013, yet it had always been one I wanted to read. The length of the book has put me off for many years and I haven’t read anything of such length since J.K Rowling’s The Order of the Phoenix at 766 pages, several years ago.
Theo’s life is traumatic; he is caught in a suspected terror attack in New York and throughout his life he loses some of those closest to him, leaving him grasping for the help of his old friends or perfect strangers. The catalyst of the novel is a painting, of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a beautiful and understated work which reminds Theo of happier times. Several of the Theo’s close friends seem to lead him astray blurring the fine boundary between friend and foe. His eventful and substance-fuelled life steers slowly towards a philosophical, yet not entirely optimistic closure. (I’m not going to reveal what happens so I acknowledge that this is a little vague)
As I’ve mentioned, the book was a lot longer than most of the books I read, and at times the reading of such a long novel was a bit laborious, but overall a worthwhile read. Tartt eloquently describes minute details like individual brush strokes on the painting, however she also creates a much wider picture, tackling issues like death, substance abuse, theft, guilt and isolation, whilst delving into philosophical questions about morality and aesthetic beauty. The novel isn’t a light holiday read, and definitely not one to rush through, particularly towards the ending.
The book is set, at first, in New York from a nostalgic perspective- the narrator looks at the commercial investors rebuilding the city and thus destroying, rather than repairing some of his favourite places. It is significant that Tartt chooses New York as a setting, when contemporary readers would be all too aware of the effects of the 9/11 Attacks. The terrorist attacks revealed, on a devastating scale, how violence could shatter Western values and society. Tartt uses the readers’ wider knowledge of this event, to focus in on the personal within the political. She does not look at the cause of the attack, but the effect it has on one child’s life, as a microcosm for the wider issue.
I was disappointed with the ending of the book, as it is left very open. Since the book delves so deeply into Theo’s life, the ending falls short in a sense, as Tartt lets her readers make up their own minds. I wasn’t certain that Theo had emerged and progressed very much since the beginning of the novel. However, perhaps this is what Tartt is interested in, since Theo is put in a Job-like position where things, people and places are taken away from him, he must learn to recover from these challenges and move on with his life. Just as the Goldfinch painting is, to Theo, highly personal, but also universal, so is the message of Tartt’s book. Once we are put back to square one (so to speak) we have to reconfigure our relationships with other people, our morality and sense of religion along with many other arbitrary things. And this sense of morality, ethics and aestheticism is the central focus for the final part of the book. At times over exaggerated and slow but such a philosophical conclusion was needed for a book which looks at the complex and shifting boundaries between good and bad, and crime vs. naivety and misunderstanding. Tartt presents the age-old question of whether one can really judge another person’s behaviour from the distance of your own shoes.
Read if you enjoy the Bildungsroman genre (coming-of-age), want to glimpse the criminal art world or love longer, open-ended novels. The topics of art collecting and antique restoration were also at the forefront, researched and described in meticulous detail by Tartt. Finally, think about The Goldfinch painting as you read the novel.The painting of the goldfinch is more significant than it first seems (as his mother’s favourite painting), the lonely, chained bird forms a revealing parallel with Theo, who is tied to his life before the terrorist attack, before everything changed. In a fast-paced and continually changing world, is it better to have freedom and face the unforgiving world, or stay trapped in what you know is safe and permanent? (like the goldfinch)