“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
Written by Donna Tartt and published in 2013, The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age tale told in the first person by 13-year-old Theodore Decker who survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum where his mother dies. While staggering through the debris, he takes with him a small Dutch Golden Age painting called The Goldfinch. It becomes a singular source of hope for him as he descends into a world of crime.
The following post is a review of the book only. You can read my review of the film in comparison to the book soon.
The Goldfinch is a difficult book to criticise because of its quality, but one that I also found difficult to commit to. I didn’t look forward to picking it up again and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible, but I had to put it down often and then force myself to keep on going. It became a chore, yet I also admired something about it on every page.
The story itself covers a lot of ground and, aside from a few jumps ahead in the timeframe, it doesn’t skip over anything to get you there more quickly. It’s a full and deep novel with immaculate descriptions, detailing every tiny thing in the most beautiful of ways. You certainly come away from this book feeling heavily educated as you learn about everything from the history of a painting to Theo’s experience of drug-taking. The bigger descriptions are certainly more captivating, but it’s the two-paged details of the type of veneer in the wood that Theo is handling that stunt the story in its progress.
It really is a spectacularly crafted novel and Tartt obviously has a true understanding of language and narrative with the constant use of metaphors, but I just found it so hard to engage with at the same time. It is complex and depressing and it fills you with anxiety.
The characters aren’t particularly likeable, either. Not even Theo, as he is bent on self-destruction. There are times that he tries to work on himself and Tartt details the mental struggles going on his mind wonderfully, but with a lot of focus on his alcohol and drug abuse, the details of his PTSD are hard to read.
There’s a lot I can forgive the book for, but what I cannot get over is how the plot drags so much. It’s so rich and dense that it becomes a painful struggle to get through, zigzagging between more interesting and tense scenes and then getting caught up in tedious details. Even the final philosophising chapter has some remarkable moments of self-reflection, but it just goes on for so long that the heart in the message gets lost.
I was just relieved to have finished it in the end and have already but in a charity box before letting it sit on my shelf for a while longer to be tempted to re-read at another time. I just know that I won’t.
The Goldfinch has recently been adapted into a film which you can watch the trailer for below: