It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch combines vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
Trigger warnings: grief, depression, physical abuse of a minor, addiction, heavy drug usage, heavy alcohol usage, suicidal thoughts / ideation.
I feel like I’ve been on a real roll lately when it comes to the books I’ve been reading, as I’ve pretty much liked every single one. Now as I’m someone who reads so much, I come across a lot of stories which I get attached to or enjoy very much but there are only a select few, the elite tier of books if you will, which genuinely move me and haunt me to this day – in the best way possible! The Goldfinch has joined the elite tier guys, it’s official. Any book which has me in a daze once I finish reading, quickly followed by the desire to encourage each and every person I know to read it with a burning desire, is elite tier for me.
Now I’ll preface this review by saying that this book is definitely not for everyone, there are many reviews out there slating it for various reasons and I can totally see where they’d be coming from. The Goldfinch is definitely a book where you have to be in it for the long haul, a labour of love one might say, but if you’re invested? It’s so worth it and so rewarding.
The novel is focused on Theo Decker, from the age of thirteen when he loses his mother in a terrible incident, which changes his life forever. We read about all his many ups and downs up until he is twenty seven. We read as he struggles to deal with his grief, as he is taken in by The Barbours, a prominent family on the Upper East side. We read as he has to go to Vegas, with his absentee father and his new girlfriend, where he finds unexpected joy and also great sadness. We read as he returns to New York and forges a life there, dealing in priceless antiques. And all the while, he carries a secret with him, that of the captivating and immutable painting, The Goldfinch…
I honestly can’t get over how much this book moved me and at times brought me to tears. This is all down to Donna Tartts incredible writing which explores the depths of so many issues: depression, grief, addiction, relationships, to name just a few, in such a visceral and unflinching way. Her writing is beautiful, even poetic at times, amidst the heaviness of the subject matter. I truly loved Tartts lavish descriptions and the intimate and sometimes even extraneous details she provides, I just didn’t want it to end.
“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.”
I thought the exploration of trauma, grief and the different and often unhealthy ways these characters cope was so incredibly real and raw. In particular when Theo moves to Las Vegas this is drawn to the forefront. At first Theo is isolated and adrift, being alone for large amounts of time and having no real friends that is, until he meets Boris. They quickly become inseparable as they have similar dysfunctional home lives and develop a deeply understanding friendship.
With no real direction in life, they indulge in the numbness and escape of drugs. we see Theo become more and more dependent on a range of drugs; opiates, cocain, prescription medicine as well as alcohol to cope with his depression and inner turmoil. Did I particularly enjoy reading as Theo and Boris laze about in drunken stupors, or get so high that they blackout and vomit? Not really. Was it a haunting and disturbing glimpse into what neglect and trauma can do to a young person? Absolutely.
The relationship between Boris and Theo as well as Boris as a character in his own right, was so complex and interesting to me. It’s clear that their friendship is unhealthy by any ‘normal’ standards and they encourage and enable each others worst habits, but at the heart of it, they’re two young people who find a connection and cling together because they’re all the other has. This creates this kind of unbreakable bond and intimacy, resulting in them sharing a bed, engaging in sexual encounters and even sharing a kiss, when Theo leaves. While the sexuality of the two is never explicitly stated, it’s clear that they both have a romantic and physical attraction to each other. I also believe that Theo is severely repressed and there’s multiple points throughout the text to suggest this. Whatever the truth of it is, they’re two characters who are bound together through mutual trauma but also a great deal of love.
“We looked at each other. And it occurred to me that despite his faults, which were numerous and spectacular, the reason I’d liked Boris and felt happy around him from almost the moment I’d met him was that he was never afraid. You didn’t meet many people who moved freely through the world with such a vigorous contempt for it and at the same time such oddball and unthwartable faith in what, in childhood, he had liked to call “the Planet of Earth.”
Throughout the novel, The Goldfinch, a small but beautiful painting by Carel Fabritius is a recurring motif. I’d also like to note that Fabritius himself was killed in an explosion, in an unfortunate accident, the same year he painted The Goldfinch. Theo sees the painting with his mother, moments before the explosion and after it happens. When he wakes up in the midst of the carnage, he meets an older man, Welty, who hands him an antique ring, telling him to take it to a shop called Hobart & Blackwell and also tells him to save the painting. Theo takes the painting and develops an obsessive need to hide it and keep it for himself. The painting is symbolic in so many ways, one reason being that it reminds Theo of his mother and another reading can be that he is like the bird in the painting, chained in some ways to his various addictions and to his depressive state of mind. I loved the focus on art here and how it can be so transformative, on surface level it’s a pretty simplistic painting but when you actually look at it and attach the meaning it has for Theo, it becomes so much more.
More than any other theme in the book however, what touched me the most was the exploration of grief. When Theo loses his mother so unexpectedly, he is adrift. It was so heartbreaking to read as he comes to terms with the fact that she really isn’t coming back and that there is nothing he can do to change that. I feel like this is such an honest and relatable portrayal of grief, healing is not linear and there is no clear cut method in coping. This one loss changes the course of his entire life and he is mourning her for the entirety of the novel. There’s a particularly emotional part of the novel, where he returns home and is waiting for her to walk through the door, for her to say everything is okay with a childish fervour but of course, she never comes. It’s tragic but so true to life, noone can predict what can happen in any given moment but the novel is a meditation on this perhaps, that we have to keep going regardless and find happiness, find joy despite it all.
Overall, I absolutely adored The Goldfinch and while it was definitely a long and emotional ride, I enjoyed every step of it. I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy lengthy, introspective coming of age novels, with a focus on complex and flawed characters. I can’t wait to read more of Donna Tartts writing already!
Until next time,