Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch has been on my to-read list for a while, due mostly to the 150-person waiting list for it at the library. (Which I suppose is to be expected from a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner and New York Times best seller.) Over the past week, though, I’ve spent plenty of time with it – 5 minutes over a bagel before I head off to work, over my lunch break, when I sit outside and get some fresh air away from my desk, while soaking in epsom salts or finishing just one more section before I fall asleep. I enjoyed immersing myself in the elaborate Bildungsroman chronicling the life of Theo Decker after an accident kills his mother and sets his life on an unusual trajectory.
As I started to read the book, I heard from several sources that the beginning was very slow, which I found to be true and not true. It’s true in the sense that the beginning 40% of the book is extended flashbacks and recollections of the accident and Theo’s subsequent life choices. On the other hand, while I read, I could tell that the story was slowly making its way to a larger point and more recent action and in the meantime, I appreciated Tart’s crisp and vivid prose as she chronicled Theo’s life in Las Vegas and his friendship with Boris. I actually found Theo’s adolescence to be the most emotionally moving section of the book, his yearning and energy undiluted by the affected cynicism and narcotics addiction that mark his adulthood.
Theo as a character is both interesting and infuriating. He teeters often on the edge of exhibiting the stereotypical man-pain of many male protagonists in psychological plots: trapped forever in a self-indulgent muck of their own wasted potential, substance abuse, and unrequited love for a girl who’s described as far superior to them while simultaneously lucky to be worthy of their attention. Nevertheless, Theo ultimately is the sort of character you care about – even as he makes terrible life choice after terrible life choice. The legitimate trauma he went through, his lack of parenting, and the genuine affection he seems capable of nonetheless all made me sincerely want him to break free from the ghosts of his past. None of the characters besides Theo are exceptionally fleshed-out, but they are likable and interesting – especially Boris, Andy and Hobie.
I could say many more things about The Goldfinch – its characters, themes and maybe even complain a bit about about its abstract and rambling denouement, but I don’t want to spoil the meandering twists and turns of the novel for you. As I read, I was caught up in the ebb and flow of the writing, interested in the characters lives, and enjoyed the bittersweet conclusion as Theo returns to the places and people of his childhood, and to, like the line from the Four Quartets I was thinking of his afternoon, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”