Staying Stylish in Suburbia

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Monday, August 11, 2014

Donna Tartt's, "The Goldfinch," remains one of the most talked about novels of the past year. When it comes to the reviews, the literary critics either love it or hate it. It's the same with the average reader. No one I've spoken to seems to be on the fence about this one. With a Pulitzer Prize and a movie deal already in the works, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. 

Touted as Dickensesque, I plunged into the story expecting something dark and sharply realistic, but with a glint of a fairy tale in its telling. I was not disappointed in that regard. Although, deeply depressing and brooding at times, the novel was swarming with surreal almost magical moments. It was also full of oddly likable yet recognizable characters. Critics point to this in order to underline the obvious cliches in Tartt's writing. In my case, I found the familiarity (a best friend who is a bad influence, an idealized mother, and a bumbling but kind mentor) to be grounding in the otherwise sprawling story. 

Thematically the novel deals with the ideas of loss, transformation, and survival. More interestingly though, is how it addresses our obsession with beautiful things (such as art) and the significance of that in an otherwise ugly, heart wrenching world. 

“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.” 

The novel also explores the legacy of art itself, and its potential to outlive the artist, transforming into a million different intimate interpretations throughout the ages.

if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”  

The Goldfinch painting at the center of the novel is an actual work of art by Carel Fabritius who studied under Rembrandt. The image of the small bird tethered to a ledge by a delicate chain is a study of captivity and (for the purpose of the novel at least) a commentary on our capacity for internal imprisonment as well. The idea that we are all trapped in our own seemingly inescapable circumstances doesn't exactly make for light reading. It does, however, make for an enthralling, addictive novel. I felt like a glutton for punishment every time I picked it up. Give me more misery! 

To be fair, there were also sweet moments and redeeming relationships, (I heart Hobart!) even in the midst of drug-induced betrayals and sexual confusion. Both the plot and the character development held my attention, as did the beautifully crafted prose. This was no small feat, especially considering that it was a 771 page novel. 

All things considered, I was a fan. There was a lot to mull over and ponder after reading this book. It's also worth stating that the next novel I chose to read was a bit more upbeat, something I felt I needed in order to keep from throwing myself off a bridge. I'm kind of kidding...but not really. 

Here is a synopsis from Amazon

"Theo Decker, a 13-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 longing for his mother, he clings to the 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 is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate."

An interesting interview with the book's author

Donna Tartt from her interview with Vogue.


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