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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – review

L ike almost everyone else, I consumed Donna Tartt's electric first novel The Secret History in a couple of fevered sittings. Here was a psychological page-turner concocted with such genuine emotional sophistication that you felt you'd stumbled on a whole new way of writing. Tartt conveyed the sly evil of amorality with a subtlety that chilled, and in doing so created that relatively rare thing: an immensely readable, yet properly grown-up, debut novel.

But that was 20 years ago. And, with only one novel since, our appetite for a new Tartt remains lusty. I don't know what I was expecting when, with some excitement, I picked up The Goldfinch , but a Harry Potter tribute novel was definitely not it.

Theo is 13 when he survives a bomb attack that kills his mother. Caught in a rainstorm, ducking into a museum to take in an exhibition of old Dutch masters, she has just shown him her favourite, Fabritius's The Goldfinch – "the smallest in the exhibition and the simplest" – when the explosion hits.

Though Theo was stirred by the painting, he was even more stirred by a feisty red-haired girl whom he'd seen accompanying an elderly man around the exhibition. Now, bloodied and dying, this same man presses an antique ring on Theo, which he tells him to take to a place called Hobart and Blackwell – "Ring the green bell!" He also urges him to grab Fabritius's painting, lying there frameless and unguarded, and take it home. In a post-traumatic daze, Theo obeys.

Since Theo's reprobate father ran off some months ago, he is effectively an orphan. Taken in by a school friend's wealthy yet emotionally chilly family on Park Avenue, and still grieving for his mother, he finally remembers to track down Hobart and Blackwell and ring the green bell. There he finds himself welcomed by Hobie, an eccentric but kindly antiques dealer who wears a "rich paisley robe with satin lapels" that 'fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him'.

So far, so JK Rowling. The sensation only deepens when, a few pages later, Theo gets new glasses that are, yes, "round, tortoiseshell". And when, 100-odd pages after that, his new best friend actually tells him he looks like the boy wizard – ''Where's your broomstick?" "'Left it at Hogwarts,' I said" – you do start wondering what on earth Tartt is up to here.

Hobie is the business partner of the dead man who, it turns out, was the uncle of the red-haired girl who, like Theo, has survived the attack. Finding sanctuary in his increasingly regular visits to the kindly wizard – sorry, antiques dealer – Theo befriends her. He is therefore aghast when his alcoholic, drug-and-gambling-addict father turns up with a Juicy Couture-wearing, cocaine-snorting girlfriend and whisks him off to live with them in Vegas.

Here, Theo meets rascally Russian boy Boris (who nicknames him Potter) and these two latchkey children embark on a friendship which, though it includes lengthily described drink and drugs binges and even the odd youthful dabble in homosexuality, nevertheless retains such a bizarrely gung-ho flavour that it might all just as well be straight out of Hogwarts. And all this time, Theo still has the painting, which, though hidden away, he likes to know is there "for the depth and solidity it gave things".

Fast-forward eight years and it is not spoiling anything to reveal that, with "Potter" now in his 20s, the high jinks continue with ever more drug-addled capers, some of them (inevitably) bloody. For we are now in the world of art crime and, though there is a (mildly guessable) twist involving the painting, and a certain amount of heist movie-style plotting, for all the lack of any real adult darkness or complexity or consequence, we honestly might just as well still be on platform 9¾.

And I admit that by this point, close to the end of a monotonous 800-page novel, I was truly perplexed. Nothing wrong, I suppose, with a Harry Potter homage, but it's hard for an adult reader to be gripped by a tale with no real subtext and peopled entirely by Goodies and Baddies. And, though our narrator comes over as (just about) plausibly male and hetero, his unrequited love for the redhead only exists because Tartt tells us it does. If what we have here is an unreliable narrator who desperately needs to burst out of the closet, then I stand corrected, but nothing in the prose evidences that. Instead it feels as if Tartt simply forgets from time to time what's driving her juggernaut forwards. Hence both redhead and painting – the two supposed passions of our protagonist's life – are dropped for hundreds of pages at a time, and I'm afraid we don't miss them.

But maybe none of this would matter much if the writing itself were sharp and pacy, light on its feet. Unfortunately it's leaden, bereft of any attitude or attack, vision or edge. How on earth could a novelist who once treated us to such a tautly sustained suspense-fest have forgotten that one of fiction's most vital tools is the edit, the cut, the authorial nerve to be in charge and not have to tell the reader absolutely bloody everything?

Conversations, monologues – many of them in Boris's broken and extremely tedious-to-read Russian accent – are drawn out over pages. They take the plot nowhere and all too frequently only reiterate things we already know. Not only that, but every scene, every character's face and clothes, every new place or aeroplane or bus or room, whether ultimately relevant or not, is described at such voluminous length that you honestly begin to wonder who the writer is trying to convince – you, or herself?

There are some highs. Narcotics and antiques: these, you feel, are where Tartt's heart lies. Her description of the terrible white-knuckle ride that is addiction, while not perhaps deserving of so many pages, has the heartsink ring of authenticity. And when she describes the eerie life of inanimate objects, the way that antique furniture, nurtured and respected down the centuries, can acquire an almost talismanic power, then I believe her absolutely. Here at last her prose comes alive.

Sadly it's not enough to save this great, mystifying mess of a novel. I was intrigued to discover that Fabritius's painting really does exist – not, to be fair, that this matters a jot to the novel. But if even I, no art historian, vaguely remember that goldfinches were often icons of the messiah, then how can Tartt have Theo wonder (again and again) what the artist meant when he painted it: "Why this subject? A lonely pet bird? Which was in no way characteristic of his age or time…" ?

Maybe it's a sad symptom of how little confidence I had by now in either novel or author that, instead of trusting that Tartt must have her reasons for leaving it out, I simply suspected she'd forgotten to put it in. Remember the suicidally long, dope-fuelled follow-up novel that Grady Tripp is writing in Chabon's Wonder Boys ? Well, guys, here it is.

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by Donna Tartt ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 22, 2013

A standout—and well worth the wait.

A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.

Tartt ( The Little Friend , 2002, etc.) takes a long time, a decade or more, between novels. This one, her third, tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother—brilliant, beautiful and a delight to be around—is felled in what would seem to be an accident, if an explosion inside a museum can be accidental. The terrible wreckage of the building, a talismanic painting half buried in plaster and dust, “the stink of burned clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to think about”—young Theo will carry these things forever. Tartt’s narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes: not sainted, just alive, the kind of person Theo misses because he can’t tell her goofy things (his father taking his mistress to a Bon Jovi concert in Las Vegas, for instance: “It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact”) as much as for any other reason. The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it’s a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works. “All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did,” his mother quietly laments of the little-known artist, and it is Theo’s mission as he moves through life to see that nothing in his own goes missing. Bookending Jonathan Safran Foer’s  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close , this is an altogether lovely addition to what might be called the literature of disaster and redemption. The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters, not least a Russian cracker-barrel philosopher who delivers a reading of God that Mordecai Richler might applaud.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-05543-7

Page Count: 784

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013


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by Claire Lombardo ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 25, 2019

Characters flip between bottomless self-regard and pitiless self-loathing while, as late as the second-to-last chapter, yet...

Four Chicago sisters anchor a sharp, sly family story of feminine guile and guilt.

Newcomer Lombardo brews all seven deadly sins into a fun and brimming tale of an unapologetically bougie couple and their unruly daughters. In the opening scene, Liza Sorenson, daughter No. 3, flirts with a groomsman at her sister’s wedding. “There’s four of you?” he asked. “What’s that like?” Her retort: “It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.” Thus begins a story bristling with a particular kind of female intel. When Wendy, the oldest, sets her sights on a mate, she “made sure she left her mark throughout his house—soy milk in the fridge, box of tampons under the sink, surreptitious spritzes of her Bulgari musk on the sheets.” Turbulent Wendy is the novel’s best character, exuding a delectable bratty-ness. The parents—Marilyn, all pluck and busy optimism, and David, a genial family doctor—strike their offspring as impossibly happy. Lombardo levels this vision by interspersing chapters of the Sorenson parents’ early lean times with chapters about their daughters’ wobbly forays into adulthood. The central story unfurls over a single event-choked year, begun by Wendy, who unlatches a closed adoption and springs on her family the boy her stuffy married sister, Violet, gave away 15 years earlier. (The sisters improbably kept David and Marilyn clueless with a phony study-abroad scheme.) Into this churn, Lombardo adds cancer, infidelity, a heart attack, another unplanned pregnancy, a stillbirth, and an office crush for David. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Grace perpetrates a whopper, and “every day the lie was growing like mold, furring her judgment.” The writing here is silky, if occasionally overwrought. Still, the deft touches—a neighborhood fundraiser for a Little Free Library, a Twilight character as erotic touchstone—delight. The class calibrations are divine even as the utter apolitical whiteness of the Sorenson world becomes hard to fathom.

Pub Date: June 25, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54425-2

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019


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by Sally Rooney ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 16, 2019

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends , in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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the goldfinch book review goodreads

clock This article was published more than  10 years ago

Book Review: ‘The Goldfinch,’ by Donna Tartt

the goldfinch book review goodreads

Clear off the biggest wall in the gallery of novels about beloved paintings. You'll need lots of space for "The Goldfinch," Donna Tartt's giant new masterpiece about a small masterpiece by Carel Fabritius . Don't worry if you can't recall that name from a dark and somnolent art-history classroom. Though he was a celebrated student of Rembrandt, the Dutch painter was almost blasted into obscurity by a gunpowder explosion in 1654, a fatal accident that made his few extant paintings even rarer than Vermeer's. But Tartt's novel is no delicate study of a girl with a pearl earring. She places Fabritius's tiny bird at the center of a capacious story that soars across the United States and around the planet, lighting on themes of beauty, family and destiny.

Tartt's many fans have waited with great expectations since her previous book, "The Little Friend," was published in 2002. While the world has been transformed over the past decade, one of the most remarkable qualities of "The Goldfinch" is that it arrives singed with 9/11 terror but redolent of a 19th-century novel. Indeed, Charles Dickens floats through these pages like Marley's ghost. You can hear the great master in everything from the endlessly propulsive plot to the description of a minor character with a "cleft chin, doughball nose, tense slit of a mouth, all bunched tight in the center of a face which glowed a plump, inflamed, blood-pressure pink."

There's nothing slavish, though, about Tartt's allusions to Dickens. She's not writing an extension of "Great Expectations" such as Peter Carey 's marvelous "Jack Maggs." Still, anyone who's run through the streets of London with Pip and Estella will catch glimpses of those characters and others in "The Goldfinch." And even if Tartt can't write with Dickens's speed, she knows how to create the same kind of intimate voice, laced with her own brand of mordant comedy and sorrow that makes us willing captives.

Although it opens on a Christmas Day, amid the festivities of the season, the story is framed by grief. Theo Decker is rotting in a hotel room in Amsterdam, sweaty with fever and narcotics, afraid to leave or even call for help. His only solace is a brief dream visit from his beloved mother, who died 14 years ago, when he was a mischievous eighth-grader.

"Things would have turned out better if she had lived," Theo begins, and immediately we're swept back to that calamitous spring day in New York when he and his mom darted into the Metropolitan Museum . Just moments after she explains the composition of Rembrandt's unnerving " Anatomy Lesson ," Theo finds himself lying amid dozens of bodies flayed by a terrorist's bomb. In the chaos of flesh and rubble, Theo comforts a dying old man and then stumbles out of the smoldering museum clutching Fabritius's "The Goldfinch," his mother's favorite painting — saved from the flames of fate once again.

With its bloody ironies and nested coincidences, this explosive opening scene is awash with the concussive disorientation of the moment but also polished by years of regret. Amid the smoke and sirens, Theo is "gasping, half-choked with plaster dust," already tormented by the illusion of culpability, by the endlessly rehearsed accusation that he could have placed his mother and himself somewhere else — anywhere else — that day. This is, among many other things, a novel of survivor's guilt, of living in "the generalized miasma of shame and unworthiness and being-a-burden."

With a Dutch master’s attention to detail, Tartt has created a narrative voice that is simultaneously immediate and retrospective, filled with the boy’s adolescent anxieties and the man’s fermented despair. “How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother?” Theo says. “Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”

While grief may be the novel’s bassline, Theo’s wit and intelligence provide the book’s endearing melody. Orphaned by the Met bombing, he and that stolen painting drift from one temporary family to another, all of them composed of vibrant characters that he turns over in his mind like a connoisseur of human personality. “How had I fetched up into this strange new life?” Theo wonders, as a series of elaborately developed episodes shows off the range of Tartt’s skill. In Manhattan, she conjures up a brittle Park Avenue clan with all its unconscious privilege and gold-plated dysfunction. In Las Vegas, she’s just as attentive to the tragicomedy of a gambler and his floozy girlfriend riding to ruin on inebriated fantasies of easy money.

The novel reaches its greatest luster in an antique store that Theo finds by following the mysterious instructions of that dying old man in the Met. It’s a magical place “where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world.” There, under the tutelage of an absent-minded restorer, Theo enjoys a bit of restoration himself. His appreciation for beautiful old things is refined and nurtured — along with his indelible love for a wounded young woman who lives among the antiques.

Tartt has created a rare treasure: a long novel that never feels long, a book worthy of our winter hibernation by the fire. In fact, toward page 500, a couple of hundred pages after most novelists would have packed up their sentences and closed the covers, she recharges the plot by introducing another complex strain of intrigue involving international gangsters. And so, at the very moment when you fear it might stall, “The Goldfinch” takes flight again.

But the Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.

Look here: A great novel can do that, too.

Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles .

You can see Carel Fabritius's "The Goldfinch" at the Frick Collection in New York until Jan. 19.


By Donna Tartt

Little, Brown. 771 pp. $30

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the goldfinch book review goodreads

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More is more in donna tartt's believable, behemoth 'goldfinch'.

Meg Wolitzer

The Goldfinch

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If you're a novelist who takes a decade or so between books, you can only hope that your readers remember how much they loved you in the past. It's a saturated market out there, and brand loyalty doesn't always extend to novelists.

But ever since the news broke that Donna Tartt's new book The Goldfinch would soon be published, many readers have been waiting in a state of breathless excitement. They've never quite gotten over how much they loved Tartt's 1992 novel, The Secret History , a tale of friendship and murder set at a college, which went on to become not only an international hit but also one of those rare books that are read over and over, in hopes of reliving that initial literary rush.

Would Tartt's latest book inspire the same kind of devotion? After all, she published a second novel, The Little Friend , that was frequently described as a letdown. Is The Goldfinch more like The Little Friend , or — fingers crossed — The Secret History ?

As it turns out, it's not much like either The Secret History or The Little Friend , and if I hadn't known that Donna Tartt had written it, I would never have guessed. This dense, 771-page book tells the story of a boy named Theo Decker, whose mother is killed in a terrorist act early in the novel. In the midst of the trauma and chaos, Theo steals a famous painting, "The Goldfinch," by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, setting the sweeping, episodic story in motion.

Several reviewers have compared her book to Oliver Twist , but when I started it I was more reminded of the Harry Potter series (a comparison that is actually made later in the book). The contemporary plot is often nervily improbable and outsized, and Theo, age 13 at the start, is a lot like Harry, in that both boys are gifted, tender-hearted and woefully unsupervised. Theo's scar, while deep and permanent, is of the invisible kind.

the goldfinch book review goodreads

Donna Tartt's other works include The Secret History and The Little Friend . Bruno Vincent/Getty Images hide caption

Donna Tartt's other works include The Secret History and The Little Friend .

The day The Goldfinch arrived I promptly cracked it open, remembering how my sons would pounce on the latest Harry Potter on the day it was published. J.K. Rowling transformed a generation of kids into passionate readers. Donna Tartt does something different here — she takes fully grown, already passionate readers and reminds them of the particularly deep pleasures that a long, winding novel can hold. In the short-form era in which we live, the Internet has supposedly whittled our attention-spans down to the size of hotel soap, and it's good to be reminded that sometimes more is definitely more.

So we get a whole lot of Theo here, and also his friend Boris, a kid with a Ukrainian passport and a multi-national history who befriends him after he's forced to leave New York City and go live with his deadbeat dad and his dad's new girlfriend Xandra in a horrible development in Las Vegas. Boris is a great character — totally appealing, a victim of appalling parental neglect, and together he and Theo forge a friendship that's believable, destructive, and comical:

"Don't go!" said Boris, one night at his house when I stood up toward the end of The Magnificent Seven " ... "You'll miss the best part." ... "You saw this movie before?" "Dubbed into Russian, if you can believe it. But very weak Russian. Sissy. Is sissy the word I want? More like schoolteachers than gunfighters, is what I'm trying to say."

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The Las Vegas section is long and detailed, just like all the other sections of this novel. Tartt almost seems to be writing in real time, and yet I was never bored. A series of long set pieces moves the story from the suspenseful opening to the rich, dense, leisurely middle and eventually the action-packed end, which is set in Amsterdam. That part, weirdly, feels as if it was grafted on from a different novel. Or no, it almost feels as if it was grafted on from a particularly literate, stylish indie crime film on the Sundance Channel.

But the occasional disjointedness doesn't affect the overall success of the novel, which absorbed me from start to finish. While The Goldfinch delves seriously and studiously into themes of art, beauty, loss and freedom, I mostly loved it because it kept me wishing I could stay in its fully-imagined world a little longer. Donna Tartt was right to take her time with this book. Readers will want to take their time with it, too.

Meg Wolitzer's latest novel is The Interestings.

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Holden Caulfield Redux

the goldfinch book review goodreads

By Ginia Bellafante

  • Nov. 28, 2013

“The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s third novel in 20 years, set in an opaquely rendered Manhattan of the 21st century, has followed its predecessors, selling robustly, while its eponym , a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, has been drawing crowds to the Frick . In an apparently serendipitous feat of cross-promotion, the painting currently appears at the museum as part of an exhibition of Dutch masterworks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, a show that has drawn more than 61,000 visitors since its debut in October.

Fabritius, a gifted student of Rembrandt’s, painted his goldfinch perched high in the frame and affixed to a delicate, unobtrusive chain. The artist died not long after, victim of an explosion that claimed much of his native city of Delft. In both its seemingly intended and accidental meanings, the painting captures what can feel like the strange nature of captivity — we often can’t see to what or whom others are held hostage, and we rarely know what will take us. The teenage Theo Decker, the novel’s protagonist, roams the city like a feral child while imprisoned by the consuming grief he feels for his mother, who is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mother and son had been viewing “The Goldfinch.”

Though the novel travels extensively — settling for a rich, discomfiting period in Las Vegas — it is a novel of Manhattan adolescence, a distinctly particular variant of it, as genealogically linked to J. D. Salinger as to any other forebear. There is Holden Caulfield’s urbanity; his mischief and failure (in both “Catcher in the Rye” and Theo’s story, trouble at private school propels the action). There is Holden Caulfield’s eye for the inauthentic, the perilous interactions with the adult world transpiring in a dreamscape New York — the specter of the dead.

What is striking about “The Goldfinch” of 2013 is that it is as much a narrative of post-9/11 New York as it isn’t. The bombing barely registers in the consciousness of the city — it is Theo’s tragedy alone. The menace is intimate: vagrants wander around in the morning, in good neighborhoods. There is little evidence of Citarella or Scandinavian strollers. The New York the author evokes is very much the New York of the middle of the last century. Right after the bombing, Theo is discharged to the family of a school friend, the Barbours of Park Avenue who live in an apartment with so little light that the plants die monthly, and so little sense of animation or connection that evening meals typically run along the lines of cocktail nuts and canapés.

The interior of the Barbour home is stodgy and frozen, without the lacquer and gloss or any of the other decorative touchstones of the modern Upper East Side dwelling. Mrs. Barbour, the matriarch, speaks in swift, declarative sentences, of the kind that never put one at ease and yet never contain enough emotion to unsettle. The trends of urban helicopter parenting and aggressive domesticity are waves she seems to have missed, as blindly as she must have ignored tattoos. Even weekday breakfast is an anachronism: the maid making French toast. “When I asked Mrs. Barbour where the washing machine was,” Theo tells us, “she looked at me as if I’d asked for lye and lard to boil up for soap.”

In recent interviews, Ms. Tartt has said that she has little interest in social realism — in contemporary depictions of marriage, parenting or divorce — and “The Goldfinch” in some sense suggests that she really means it. At the heart of the novel is an idealization of a family structure most resonant of New York of the 1970s — the period of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The Goodbye Girl,” when partners vanished to the winds of self-interest and single parents stood with their single children as friends and warriors against the world.

In the context of the book’s monstrous parents, Theo’s mother stands alone, cultivated and caring in her four-room apartment stuffed to the ceiling with books and other means of enlightenment. This is the world of cheap takeout ascending to the level of magic, and filial mind-meld that has little to do with money, and in ways that feel out of our time, there’s little sense that wealth matters. Ms. Tartt may not have set out to say anything about family life in the city now, but she conveys a great deal by omission. This is not a world of $700-an-hour SAT tutors.

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The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Book summary.

Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America; a story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the enormous power of art.

Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction The author of the classic bestsellers The Secret History and The Little Friend returns with a brilliant, highly anticipated new novel. A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by a friend's family and struggles to make sense of his new life. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by one of the few things that reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the art underworld. Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America, and a drama of almost unbearable acuity and power. It is a story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the enormous power of art.

Chapter 1. Boy with a Skull

WHILE I WAS STILL in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I'd been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch-language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel's-hair coat thrown over my clothes—for I'd left New York in a hurry and the things I'd brought weren't warm enough, even indoors. Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying ...

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[The book] could have used some heavy editing. Frankly I am not sure I would have continued on had The Goldfinch not been a Donna Tartt book, knowing she’d spring a sudden surprise on me toward the end. And boy, does she! A dramatic event happens about two-thirds of the way in that upends the very foundations that the story is built on. It upsets, not just Theo, but the reader too, because Tartt has a way of enveloping us completely in her beautifully imagined world. That this plot turn hinges on a slightly far-fetched coincidence, we shall choose to ignore. As I read through, I realized I had impossibly high expectations for the author. The one problem with being Donna Tartt is that you have to measure up to, well, Donna Tartt... continued

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte ).

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

By donna tartt, an engrossing and entertaining dickensian tale, plot summary.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) of a boy who survives a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The bombing results in his mother’s death and, in the haze of the aftermath, him making off with her favorite painting, Fabritius’s Goldfinch, a small 17th century oil painting. The boy, Theo Decker, grows up, but under the shadow of the attack and his illicit ownership of this priceless painting.

Tartt’s David Copperfield-esque story is lengthy, but eventful. Theo goes from moving in with an upper-class Park Avenue family of a classmate to living in a largely-vacant housing development outside of Las Vegas with his dad to finding his way to being apprenticed at a antique furniture restoration shop. In each place, he’s haunted by his ghosts and weight of possessing a valuable and important piece of art.

Book Review

The story is plot-driven much of the time, which has resulted in backlash by critics who claim that it is not “literary” enough for its Pulitzer, but Tartt’s novel, despite its entertainment value, is no Dan Brown or James Patterson novel. It’s characters are complicated and sometimes deeply flawed, with a strong sense of voice. The writing is engaging and accessible, but intelligent and ably moves the story along.

Anyway, if the worst thing you can say about a compelling and thoughtful story is that it’s “too entertaining,” then it’s probably worth a read. It was one of the more worthwhile books I’ve read in a while. The overall intellectual arcs — highlighted by Theo’s nihilistic tendencies, his discussion of morals with Boris — are good fodder for book club talks. The story itself is fascinating, though perhaps it veers into somewhat fanciful territory — terrorist attacks, mobster-like showdowns, drug usage, financial windfalls, etc. all find their way into this tale.

Read it or Skip it?

The Goldfinch has pretty broad appeal, though — fair warning — it is somewhat less accessible than general popular fiction, partially due to its sheer length and the granular information it delves into. For example, it dives deep into details about art and art restoration, etc. so that may or may not interest you. I loved all of it, but it’s not the type of thing that appears in your average novel. Beyond that, I don’t have any caveats. If the premise sounds compelling to you and have a little patience, I think you’ll find it to be a masterfully crafted and delightful tale.

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The boyfriend and I have had several conversations about who we think could play the characters in the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Spader or Stephen Fry would all be great as Hobie. It’s a shame the former is no longer with us.

haha that’s a fun game — so true, he’d be perfect for the role!

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Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Thea Hawlin

Donna Tartt’s latest novel is a Bildungsroman in all its coming-of-age glory, as Theo Dekker works his way through a world as messy and disorientating as our own. After an explosion in the city-machine of New York kills Theo’s mother, his estranged father comes to reclaim him from the arms of the Big Apple’s elite. He is relocated to the eerie suburbs of Las Vegas with nothing but a stolen painting of a goldfinch to remind him of the life he once led. The recognisable clutter and confusion of everyday life are perfectly captured, intensified through the unease of a young boy in the wake of loss.

The stolen painting, while central to the narrative, often fades into the background of Theo’s life. I found myself forgetting about it altogether—as Theo occasionally does—so absorbing is Tartt’s evocation of the semi-deserted Las Vegas suburbs. When Theo befriends the “Barbarian Prince” Boris—a Russian Artful Dodger to Theo’s displaced Oliver Twist—the painting is disregarded completely as Theo attempts to negotiate the complexities of his new life, egged on by his charismatic new friend.

You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life

Along with The Luminaries , The Goldfinch cemented 2013 as a year for beautifully written but vast novels. The Goldfinch is around eight hundred pages long, and part of the joy of reading a book so expansive is the devotion it demands and it is rewarded. Years pass, characters grow, we are swept away with the bit-part players that come and go in Theo’s life.

Some critics, presumably desperate to analogise, have discussed Theo as a Harry Potter figure; he is the ‘boy who lived’ indeed, but hardly a wizard out to fight evil. He’s far too complex for such a fairytale comparison. Those who have heralded the work as Dickensian are closer. It’s easy to see The Goldfinch as a reimagined Great Expectations , for part of the fascination of this novel is in the sheer detail of every character Tartt creates. Every person in the novel is fully formed, from walk-on eccentrics to major players., The bit-parts delight because, dropping in and out over hundreds of pages, they take on roles rarely captured well in a novel: casual acquaintances, rarely-seen friends. The people who become significant with time, not because of the contrivances of plot. It’s rare to find a writer who spends so much time becoming acquainted with every cast member; rare still for such attention to detail to be so invigorating.

Theo’s impetuous you-only-live-once theft may represent the promise of the present, but The Goldfinch is also concerned with the past, and the manner in which memories shape us, often while we are unaware. In the book’s opening passage Theo dreams of his mother, who represents an alternative world: another life in which he might remain secluded and happy, content in the big city, visiting art galleries, casually devouring culture and appraising antiques. But with his mother only a memory, these things are distorted. The painting of the goldfinch represents impulsive youth but is also a last thread of what-could-have-been. Folded up and secreted in a pillowcase, the painting becomes a guilty secret which taints event positive memories. The tender passages detailing Theo’s final moments with his mother are beautifully sad but what the reader wonders about most is what will become of the stolen painting, the painting that Theo has yet to understand and maybe never will.

Every new event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.

This story will change you, mostly because of its honesty. After you’ve read it, you’ll remember sections as though you’re recalling something a friend told you about. How that one time he had to take a coach journey with a dog; how petrified he was that it would annoy someone and he’d be thrown off. Even such apparently mundane moments are suspenseful, and take on a wonderful clarity at Tartt’s touch. There’s an eloquence in the most trivial events. It should come across as self-indulgent, but it ends up being deeply moving. We see the world from Theo’s perspective and Tartt never lets the mask slip for a moment. We are fixed in the world of the protagonist.


To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole…

In this way Theo becomes the Goldfinch of the title. A small lonely bird, tethered by a chain he does not see, attempting to spread his wings in a world he does not understand. It spoils nothing and comes as no surprise that Theo outlives both his parents. His inability to unfetter himself from such experiences shapes the novel. Theo never actually gets to leave the nest at a time of his own choosing; instead, he is thrown from it. He is without shelter and he cannot fly.

At times it seems as though Tartt is in danger of overreaching. The Goldfinch is long, varied, spread across all corners of the Earth, involved with all classes and all manner of social situations. It is a novel about relationships in all their stages, all their forms, making, breaking, reviving, consuming, abusive, obtrusive, elusive. Yet through this confusion there is a thread of clarity. The aspects of the novel that could have been its weak points are actually its strongest: its size, the inwardness of its narrator, its eclectic cultural references. The Goldfinch will leave you exhausted, both from carrying it around and from the mental energy Tartt demands that you invest in her characters. This is a book that calls for complete immersion—but it is well worth the effort.

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.

The Goldfinch is available now.  Buy it from Foyles .

About Thea Hawlin

Theodora (Thea) Hawlin is assistant editor and production manager of The London Magazine.

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The Goldfinch

A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

The Goldfinch


By Donna Tartt

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 22, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

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  • "Dazzling....[A] glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all Ms. Tartt's remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
  • " The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind....Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction." Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review
  • " The Goldfinch is a book about art in all its forms, and right from the start we remember why we enjoy Donna Tartt so much: the humming plot and elegant prose; the living, breathing characters; the perfectly captured settings....Joy and sorrow exist in the same breath, and by the end The Goldfinch hangs in our stolen heart." Vanity Fair
  • "A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory, and the haunting power of art....Eloquent and assured, with memorable characters....A standout-and well-worth the wait." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "It's a classic...If you haven't read it, read it. If you have, read it again." Andy Cohen, Today Show
  • "Where to begin? Simply put, I'm indescribably jealous of any reader picking up this masterpiece for the first time. And once they do, they will long remember the heartrending character of Theo Decker and his unthinkable journey." Sarah Jessica Parker for Goop
  • "A soaring masterpiece." Ron Charles, Washington Post

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Donna Tartt

About the author.

Donna Tartt is an American author who has achieved critical and public acclaim for her novels, which have been published in forty languages. Her first novel, The Secret History , was published in 1992. In 2003 she received the WH Smith Literary Award for her novel,   The Little Friend , which was also nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction for her most recent novel,   The Goldfinch.  

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Film Review: ‘The Goldfinch’

This year's prestige cinematic literary adaptation is a version of Donna Tartt's 2013 novel about art, terrorism, and a lost boy growing up that's scrupulously faithful, yet still misses the book's captivating essence.

By Owen Gleiberman

Owen Gleiberman

Chief Film Critic

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The Goldfinch trailer

“ The Goldfinch ” is this year’s entry in what has become, by now, a time-honored genre: the high-toned awards-bait literary adaptation that, for all the skill and care and ambition that’s been lavished on it, doesn’t quite work. Watching this faithful-in-a-literal-way yet somehow skittery cinematic transcription of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 art-mystery novel, you can tell that the director, John Crowley (“Brooklyn”), and the screenwriter, Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), did everything in their power to get the novel up on screen. Roger Deakins’ luscious cinematography lends the movie the creamy clarity of a dream. Yet what you experience isn’t the book, exactly; it’s the strenuous creative labor that went into adapting it. What cast a winding spell on the page has become an occasionally compelling but mostly labored live-action illustration.

We’ve seen this happen a hundred times before, just about always during awards season. For every adaptation of a relatively recent literary sensation that succeeds in being vibrantly true to the book and, at the same time, emerges as a rich dramatic entity all its own, like “No Country for Old Men,” there are a dozen others like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “The Lovely Bones,” “Beloved,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or — going back to the ’70s and ’80s — “Daniel” and “Ironweed.” These are movies that exist in the culture for a moment or two as prestige spectacles of adaptation, yet they’re films that few viewers wind up going back to, because they never achieve a life apart from the optics of the novels they were based on.

Is that because they’ve simply failed to capture the magic of the book in question? More often than not, yes. Yet there are occasions when the big screen can lay bare, almost unwittingly, what was precious and contrived about a book to begin with. In the case of “The Goldfinch,” it’s a little of both.

Tartt’s novel, told in the first person, was a passionate and suspenseful tapestry — of coming-of-age adventure and wide-eyed adult turmoil, of art history and neo-“Ripley’s Game” thriller. The movie sticks true to all of it, yet the scenes are no longer connected to each other by a voice. Instead, we’re watching a thematically organized but disjointed drama that sometimes feels like three separate movies jammed together. At the same time, even the smallest incident is freighted .

The picture tells the story of an eager, owlish 13-year-old boy, Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley), known as Theo, who lost his mother in a freak tragedy, when she was killed by a terrorist bomb at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Even in an age of mass shootings, the notion that a bombing like this one would take place feels at once resonant and metaphorically dated.) It’s also the story of an exquisite small painting from the museum’s walls that got handed to Theo by a mysterious man in the rubble — “The Goldfinch,” a 1654 image of a chained bird, by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (a contemporary of Vermeer’s), which Theo took and kept hidden, because it would always remind him of the mother he lost.

“The Goldfinch” is also about Theo’s life with the Barbours, a wealthy WASP family on Park Avenue who take him in as their own. And it’s about how Theo gets dragged away by his sleazebag father (Luke Wilson), who brings him to a barren suburban tract home on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where Theo befriends a moonstruck Ukrainian delinquent named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), whose I’ll-try-anything ways end up turning Theo into a drug addict who favors snorting crushed pills. It’s also about how Theo, after he grows up (at which point he’s played by Ansel Elgort ), goes back to work for the gentle restorer of antiques (Jeffrey Wright) he first connected to, almost by fate, through the man in the rubble.

There’re a lot of cosmic connection holding “The Goldfinch” together. Back in the 1700s, the painting itself survived an explosion, and the way Theo keeps running into people he knows — like Boris, all grown up, at a Russian bar in New York — can make you feel like there’s way too much coincidence to what happens. Of course, that’s the way a certain kind of novel works; on the page, “The Goldfinch” had a poetry of serendipity. The movie, at times, just seems to be taking place in a Manhattan with only nine people in it.

Just about all the actors make an impression. Oakes Fegley, from “Pete’s Dragon,” invests the teenage Theo with a smirky toughness (it’s a relief that he’s less nerdish than he looks), and Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour with an elegant affection that makes you see why the boy would want to stay there. Luke Wilson, as the derelict dad, and Sarah Paulson, as his bitter sexpot paramour, incarnate a hustling Middle American rot, and Finn Wolfhard, from the “It” films and “Strangers Things,” plays Boris like a Slavic androgynous Bette Davis. (Aneurin Barnard’s performance as the adult Boris doesn’t begin to live up to that one.) Jeffrey Wright, more than any actor in the film, invests a love of artistic objects with a note of soulful complication. As for Ansel Elgort, he makes the adult Theo a perky but spy-like presence in a way that draws us to him. Ashleigh Cummings, as Pippa the redheaded girl who was also in the museum that fateful day, and Willa Fitzgerald, as the Barbours’ glamorous daughter (both become romantic presences for Theo), add a touch of glamour to the gloom.

Yet a morose and downbeat movie, too lost in the maze of its designer seriousness, is what “The Goldfinch” finally is. It’s a kind of glazed picaresque, and the closet thing it has to a reigning conflict is the guilt Theo feels over the fact that his mother’s death must somehow have been his fault. It’s an idea he needs to shake, but frankly it’s an idea that grows tiresome; it’s like watching “Ordinary People” redone as a lofty abstraction. Will fans of Donna Tartt’s novel turn out to see “The Goldfinch”? They may feel like they don’t have to; they may sense, in advance, that “the book was better.” But a film like “The Goldfinch” is aiming for a wider audience than just the novel’s fans. And having seen the movie, they may be driven to seek out the book, though less for the reason one hopes for — to expand the experience — than simply to discover what the fuss was about.

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 8, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 149 MIN.

  • Production: A Warner Bros. release of an Amazon Studios, Color Force production. Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson. Executive producers: Mari Jo Winkler-Iofreda, Kevin McCormick, Sue Kroll, Courtenay Valenti.
  • Crew: Director: John Crowley. Screenplay: Peter Straughan. Camera (color, widescreen): Roger Deakins. Editor: Kelley Dixon. Music: Trevor Gureckis.
  • With: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson.

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Vinay Prasad's Observations and Thoughts

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: A Book Review

Spoiler alert listed below.

the goldfinch book review goodreads

This Substack is called Vinay Prasad’s Observations and Thoughts , and, though my attention typically centers on medical topics, today’s post will be under the broader theme of my interests—a book review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch . (spoiler alert denoted below).

the goldfinch book review goodreads

People close to me will not be surprised to see a book review in these pages. Since I was 10 years old, I have been in love with literature. I read compulsively, obsessively—staying awake till 4 in the morning to finish a novel with school looming the next day, or reading for 14 or 16 hours non-stop on a rainy weekend day or from lift off to touch down on an international flight, till my eyes were bleary.  Donna Tartt’s writing takes me back to my adolescence—being so enamored by a book that it is all consuming.  Under that spell, the pleasure of reading surpasses anything else I could be doing. Well, almost anything.

A few months ago, I read Tartt’s first book The Secret History, and found her to be delightful and lyrical.  That novel--- written in her mid twenties—centers on two crimes committed by a group of Classics students at a small liberal arts school in the northeast. The writing is dazzling. The plot rockets forward.   

Two decades later, Tartt would write the Goldfinch.   I have long believed that in contrast with scientists—who are often most creative and inventive in their 20s and 30s—great fiction writers are at the peak of their craft in their 50s and 60s.  No one exemplifies this more than Philip Roth, whose books of the 1990s-2000s remain one of the most illuminative portraits of life in twenty century America.  To me, The Human Stain is his crowning achievement.

The Goldfinch is a lengthy book—over 750 pages—but when the weight shifted in my hands, and there were just 200 pages between me and the end, I felt sad. I started to read more slowly.  I wanted to make it last, knowing that it would be some time before I find another book as splendid, dazzling and sublime.

The book is a work of art; a tightly wound story that tackles the eternal themes of life:  Love—with careful consideration of its most beautiful and cruelest form: unrequited love; Fathers and sons—how we are shaped in their image even if we do not think or wish so; The death of a parent. Morality and fate—do good things only come from good actions? Or can good come from bad?—Meaning—what is the purpose of life and art in an ephemeral world; Friendships over a lifetime—how we come to love our friends.

Tartt takes on these themes with a plot set in motion with a bomb blast and a borrowed painting.  Her story is intricate, spanning decades in time, geography, a half dozen or more key characters, and yet, it seems so perfect—finishing the book is like snapping the final piece of the puzzle in place.

*spoiler alert, in what follows*

For a moment, I found her choice of the painting itself, Fabritius’ Goldfinch, a cliché. Of course, it had to be a painting by a painter killed in a bomb blast to be borrowed in a bomb blast.  And I don’t use the world stolen because no one who reads the book can believe that is what he did.  But I granted her that illusion, and then, as I finished the book, I realized it could have been no other painting or painter. In many ways, the painting has its own destiny.

Theo’s relationship to his father is portrayed mercilessly.  His father is a drunk, a drug addict, a man who would risk the fortunes of his own son to further his addiction, and Theo hates that.   Then we watch Theo grow up to become a drunk, a drug addict, a man whose forgeries risk the fortunes of Hobie, whom he loves as a father. 

Theo is his father’s son. He inherits the easy with which some men lie—and deceive—how deception becomes a pastime in and of itself—apart from instrumental ends. As Xandra prophecized, Theo is more like his father than he would admit.

Theo starts the book noting how different his life would have been if not for the death of his mother. This is the eternal question for any child who lost his parent at a young age. Then on page 723, Tartt describes Theo’s dreams of his mother. Even in his dreams, he cannot touch her. She is always out of grasp. Until the very moment he needed her guidance most. For those of us who have lost someone close, Tartt captures this painful experience of not being to touch them even in your dreams.

Unrequited love—who hasn’t felt its pain? When he cannot be with Pippa, Theo plays her favorite Arvo Part, and reads novels she had read to gain access to her thoughts— haven’t we all done that?

As is often the case, the object of our desires is someone we don’t truly understand.   Not until the final section does Theo recognize Pippa’s parallel addiction.  Can two people be so similar they aren’t compatible? Their weaknesses feed off each other. Pippa is smart enough to recognize this risk, does he accept her final answer? The reader is left to wonder, perhaps root for them in spite of it all.

Kitsey, the perfect woman. She embodies making the “right” choices in life—the perfect pairing for Theo and she is correct that, in most ways, life with her will be predictable and good.  And yet, the reader feels the spark is missing.  We aren’t left wondering what she thought about his absence over Christmas. We have little sympathy towards her plight— being jilted at your engagement party. 

Yet, most of our own lives are propelled by a series of choices that resemble Kitsey herself—predictable choices, what our parents or sister wants for us.  Tartt leaves us in final limbo on this question, and we can only wonder what Theo will choose.

[On a side note: I have long believed that a great sin in medicine is that path to become a doctor inherently selects for people who make the Kitsey choice every day of their lives, and these folks struggle to understand the many people in the world who would rather be alone, pinning after Pippa. This spills over into all their behavior— including risking challenging accepted dogma or generally being risk taking and courageous.]

The painting, the Goldfinch, becomes a metaphor for the trajectory of all our lives.  It bounces around all over the world, chained to whomever holds it.  Then, in its final act, it serves a purpose larger than itself.  It releases several paintings long lost.  Did Welty envision this journey when he asked Theo to take it?  Did the goldfinch finally break free of the chain that tied it to its nest?  Did Theo get precisely what he wanted? And, more: will the painting one day survive a third bomb blast— the haunting conclusion to the closing paragraph…

“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers and the next.”

That is also what I think Tartt’s answer is to the Big — capital B- question. And perhaps the best answer for the meaning of life without God. For the artist— the answer is to create something so beautiful, so transcendent— that people want to pass it along forever, a form of immortality. For the scientist— it is to make a discovery that lasts forever— or changes the arc of humanity. At least, the artist or scientist has to believe this, lest they be sucked in the vortex that leads one to take a mixture of booze and benodiazepines in a hotel in Amsterdam. In Tartt’s particilar case, I think she has succeeded—the book itself is literally her Goldfinch. [As a philosopher, writer and doctor, this is not exactly my answer to the Big question, but I will save that for a longer form]

And, then there are the quotes I flagged, dog-earing the book 50 times, and writing furiously in the margins, let me leave you with a few. Here, what art means to us:

the goldfinch book review goodreads

And then this, the very best, on Good and evil. Having witnessed so much in my personal life, and even more in the 18 years I have been in medicine, I know Boris is right.

the goldfinch book review goodreads

In our modern world, I cannot help feel pity towards the children (not all of them are young) who constantly try to split the world into black and white, and cancel the ‘bad people.’ They are ignorant to most of the human experience. They have never had to make hard choices where there is no good answer, and not answering is not possible. They have never had to do bad things in order to do great ones. Nor do they recognize that actions they view as virtuous result in tremendous harm. Part of maturity is to learn that “the world is much stranger than we know or can say.”

The Goldfinch was a gorgeous, sumptuous book, displacing my prior favorites Sometimes a Great Notion and El Amor en Los Tiempos Del Colera .  The only consolation in finishing the book in 2023 is knowing that it has been 10 years since Tartt’s last book.  The next one may arrive any day now.  I will be waiting.

PS Donna Tartt if you read this, and are in SF, please drop me a line. 

the goldfinch book review goodreads

Ready for more?


The Goldfinch Summary, Characters and Themes

“The Goldfinch” is a novel written by Donna Tartt, published in 2013. 

It follows the story of a young boy named Theo Decker who survives a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which kills his mother. During the chaos of the attack, Theo takes a small, valuable painting called “The Goldfinch.” The novel then traces Theo’s life as he navigates grief, guilt, and the complexities of adulthood while keeping the painting hidden.

The story unfolds in five parts, beginning with a suspenseful moment as Theo, now an adult, finds himself secluded in a hotel room in Amsterdam, embroiled in a situation that ties back to his tumultuous past.

The journey back to this pivotal moment begins when Theo, at the tender age of thirteen, and his mother, Audrey, visit an exhibit on the Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum. 

It’s there that Theo is drawn to a mesmerizing painting, “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius, and a red-haired girl named Pippa. 

However, their peaceful day takes a catastrophic turn when a bomb explodes, claiming Audrey’s life and thrusting Theo into a whirlwind of grief and confusion. In his dazed state, Theo encounters Welty, a dying man who entrusts him with “The Goldfinch” painting and a signet ring, propelling him on a journey to Hobart and Blackwell, an antique shop.

Theo’s life spirals into further disarray when he is uprooted from his familiar surroundings and placed with the Barbours, a wealthy family on Park Avenue. 

Yet, amidst the opulence, Theo finds solace in his secret—the stolen painting—and his burgeoning friendship with Hobie, Welty’s partner at the antique shop, and the brain-injured Pippa.

The plot thickens as Theo’s estranged father, Larry, reappears, dragging him to Las Vegas. 

There, amidst a life of neglect, substance abuse, and petty crimes, Theo forms a deep bond with Boris, a fellow teenager. Unbeknownst to Theo, a night of recklessness leads Boris to steal “The Goldfinch,” setting the stage for future revelations.

After a tragic accident claims his father’s life, Theo returns to New York, seeking refuge with Hobie and immersing himself in the world of antiques. 

However, his attempts to keep the shop afloat through dubious means attract dangerous attention, thrusting “The Goldfinch” and its cursed legacy back into the spotlight.

The narrative reaches a crescendo in Amsterdam, where Theo and Boris’s quest to reclaim the painting from the clutches of criminals leads to a deadly confrontation. In the aftermath, a twist of fate sees the painting returned to its rightful place, and Boris’s cunning plan rewards them both handsomely.

Returning to New York, Theo confronts the consequences of his actions, embarking on a mission to rectify the wrongs of his past. Tartt masterfully closes the circle, leaving readers to ponder the intricate tapestry of fate, art, and redemption that defines “The Goldfinch.”

The Goldfinch Summary

Theodore “Theo” Decker

Theo, the narrator and protagonist of “The Goldfinch,” takes us on a journey from adolescence to adulthood, showcasing his intelligence, sensitivity, and propensity for intense fixations. Shaped by the tragic loss of his mother in a museum bombing, Theo’s life becomes a quest for love, stability, and meaning through relationships and the haunting allure of a stolen masterpiece. His life oscillates between chaos and order, as he navigates grief, addiction, and the murky waters of the antiques trade, ultimately seeking redemption and a semblance of peace amidst life’s tumult.

Boris Pavlikovsky

Boris, Theo’s best friend in Las Vegas, embodies the complexities of loyalty, chaos, and love. With a background as diverse as his personality, Boris introduces Theo to a world of adventure and recklessness, marked by substance abuse and moments of violence. Despite his chaotic influence, Boris’s deep bond with Theo underscores themes of friendship and redemption, as he plays a pivotal role in the saga of the stolen painting.

Pippa, the embodiment of art and unattainable love, captivates Theo from their first encounter. Strikingly beautiful yet tragically marked by the same bombing that killed Theo’s mother, Pippa becomes Theo’s lifelong fixation. Their complicated relationship, filled with moments of connection and separation, mirrors Theo’s struggle with his own desires and the realities of life’s unpredictability.

James “Hobie” Hobart

Hobie stands as a beacon of stability and unconditional love in Theo’s turbulent life. As the co-owner of Hobart and Blackwell, he not only introduces Theo to the art of furniture restoration but also provides a nurturing environment reminiscent of the family Theo lost. Hobie’s gentle nature and dedication to his craft offer a counterbalance to the chaos that envelops Theo’s world.

Larry Decker

Theo’s father, Larry, is a figure of instability and disappointment. His departure from Theo’s life, followed by a turbulent reunion in Las Vegas, highlights themes of abandonment and the destructive impact of addiction. Larry’s unpredictable behavior and eventual betrayal underscore the challenges Theo faces in seeking figures of reliable support and guidance.

Audrey Decker

Though her presence in the novel is brief, Audrey’s influence on Theo is profound and enduring. Her death is the catalyst for Theo’s tumultuous journey, leaving a void filled with memories of her vibrant spirit and unconditional love. Audrey represents the artistry of life itself, casting a lasting shadow over Theo’s quest for beauty and meaning in a fractured world.

Andy Barbour

Andy provides a semblance of normalcy and companionship in the aftermath of Theo’s tragedy. Their friendship, though marked by Andy’s own struggles and eventual tragic fate, highlights the importance of connection and support in navigating life’s challenges.

Mrs. Barbour

As Andy’s mother and Theo’s temporary guardian, Mrs. Barbour offers a glimpse into a world of privilege and superficial beauty. Her transformation following personal tragedy reflects the novel’s exploration of loss, resilience, and the shifting facades of those coping with grief.

Kitsey Barbour

Kitsey, Theo’s fiancée and Andy’s sister, contrasts sharply with Pippa’s intensity. Her relationship with Theo, marred by infidelity and superficiality, underscores Theo’s ongoing struggle with authenticity and connection in his personal life.

Xandra, Larry’s girlfriend, embodies the allure and pitfalls of a life lived on the edge. Her vibrant yet troubled presence in Theo’s life in Las Vegas adds depth to the novel’s examination of family, loyalty, and the search for belonging.

Welton “Welty” Blackwell

Welty’s brief yet pivotal role in Theo’s story sets the stage for the novel’s central themes of fate, art, and the interconnectedness of lives. His dying act of entrusting Theo with “The Goldfinch” painting and a signet ring propels Theo into a journey of discovery, loss, and eventual redemption.

1. The Impact of Trauma

At the heart of the story lies the profound and far-reaching impact of trauma. 

Theo Decker’s journey is set into motion by a singular, catastrophic event—the bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—that results in the loss of his mother and sets him adrift in a world that seems both alien and hostile. 

Tartt explores how trauma shapes the contours of Theo’s life, influencing his decisions, relationships, and psychological state. The novel delves into the nuances of grief, survivor’s guilt, and the struggle to find a semblance of normalcy amidst the ruins of a shattered past. 

This exploration is not confined to Theo alone; Pippa serves as another poignant example of how trauma can alter the trajectory of a life, influencing one’s personality, choices, and interactions with the world.

2. The Search for Identity

Through Theo’s odyssey from a confused teenager to a troubled adult, “The Goldfinch” scrutinizes the complex process of identity formation. 

Tartt uses Theo’s interactions with a diverse cast of characters and his relationship with the stolen painting as metaphors for the search for self in a chaotic world. 

The novel suggests that identity is not a fixed state but a fluid and evolving construct, shaped by experiences, relationships, and the objects to which one forms attachments. 

Theo’s journey is emblematic of the universal quest for belonging and purpose, as he navigates the murky waters of familial bonds, friendship, love, and the crushing weight of secrets.

3. Moral Complexities of Art and Authenticity

At its core, this book is also a meditation on the nature of art , its value, and its power. 

The stolen painting becomes a symbol of beauty and destruction, intertwining Theo’s fate with broader questions about the role of art in society. Tartt challenges the reader to consider the authenticity of art—not just in terms of its provenance but also in its capacity to evoke emotion and provoke thought. 

The novel raises ethical questions about the art world, from the creation of forgeries to the commodification of artistic masterpieces. 

Through Theo’s dealings in the murky realms of art restoration and forgery, Tartt explores the thin lines between genius and fraudulence, between the genuine article and its imitation, inviting readers to reflect on what makes art truly valuable: its history , its beauty, or the joy and sorrow it brings to its beholder.

Final Thoughts

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt is a masterful exploration of art, tragedy, and the complexity of human connections. Tartt skillfully interweaves themes of loss, identity, and the search for meaning amidst chaos, crafting a narrative that is both deeply personal and universally resonant. 

The novel’s richly drawn characters, intricate plot, and philosophical underpinnings invite readers to reflect on the impact of art and beauty in our lives, making it a profound and compelling read. 

Through Theo’s journey, Tartt offers a perfect meditation on the power of redemption and the indelible mark of the past on our present and future.

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