Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I did not care for Donna Tartt's much-praised The Secret History and could not even get through her second novel, The Little Friend. Consequently, I did not rush to read The Goldfinch. In fact, I didn't plan to. But then last summer, my friend Nina was raving about the book and, since she's smart and a former English teacher, I thought I'd give it a go. Seven months later, I finally finished the rather massive novel and, with apologies to Nina, the Pulitzer committee, and most of the rest of the world, my response is a vehement "meh."

The Goldfinch is essentially a coming-of-age novel that begins with an event that might easily derail any 13-year-old--the death of the protagonist's mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum. At the time of the bombing Theo Decker was in a different room of the museum; knocked unconscious, he awakens and finds another survivor--an old man who seems to be dying. Inexplicably, the man gives him a ring and tells him to steal a nearby painting, "The Goldfinch," and Theo does so.  Through the chaotic years to come, Theo never mentions his possession of the masterpiece to anyone.

And there is no question that his life is chaotic. Immediately after his mother's death, he goes to live with a wealthy friend's family, but this situation is temporary and he soon decamps to Las Vegas with his ne'er-do-well father and his girlfriend Xandra. The two have little interest in the boy and he and his friend Boris spend the next few years drunk, high, and engaged in petty crime. After another trauma, Theo returns to New York, living with an accepting antique restorer named James Hobart, a friend of the old man who told Theo to steal the painting.  As Theo enters adulthood, his ethical standards remain about what they were when he and Boris were living the feral life in Vegas.

Eventually, the painting becomes the centerpiece of a misadventure that takes Theo to Amsterdam and ultimately causes him to resolve to change his life. The book ends with Theo musing philosophically about art being the only thing that lasts.

Very little in The Goldfinch beyond Theo's early teenage problems and the bombing at the museum feels at all believable. The longer the book went on, the more far-fetched it became. Combined with a cast of rather despicable characters (Hobie and a few other more minor characters are excepted from this condemnation), dialogue that sometimes did not fit the characters mouthing it, and writing that often felt trite, this implausibility gave me little to love in The Goldfinch. The  philosophical discourse at the end is written with grace and passion but seems to belong in another book.

Favorite passage:
. . . between "reality" on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

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