The Goldfinch is the third novel in just over twenty years from Donna Tartt, an author whose first novel The Secret History remains one of my favourite books of all time. The Goldfinch is an inspired, excellent work with much in common with her debut, even if it’s not quite on the same level.
Like The Secret History, this novel follows a young man finding his way through life, here excising the university leg that was the focus of the earlier novel to focus on a difficult childhood, a dangerous – often drunken – adolescence and the challenges of burgeoning adulthood. The contrast of the druggy, desolate haze of Las Vegas to the nothingness of New York bourgeois society is like a jump cut from Hunter S. Thompson to F. Scott Fitzgerald … but it works, largely thanks to Tartt’s consistent characterisation.
The centre of the book is the titular Goldfinch, a priceless painting aimlessly appropriated by protagonist Theo Decker in the aftermath of a museum explosion that claims his mother’s life. The painting leads him inexorably into the criminal underworld, but like The Secret History, the crime hook is there more for an allegorical foundation than to support any crime thriller framework. The stolen Goldfinch is a versatile, potent symbol – it represents loss, pain, regret and dark secrets pulling one under. More than anything, it represents the singular power of art and the need to preserve and recognise that power.
The Goldfinch is great art, too. It’s filled with exceptional writing; Tartt is fantastic at creating a real voice, using educated protagonists to give her prose a sense of both verisimilitude and poetry consistent with the character. Here the bookish, artistically-inclined Theo serves as an engaging protagonist through his adventures amongst antique restoration, art theft and much more. The prose shifts from the tidy anxiousness of the first act in New York to a looser drunkenness in Las Vegas to something simultaneously erratic and erudite in the last act. It’s well-suited to the mindframe of Theo, even if it doesn’t suit the unnecessary framing conceit (suggesting that the bulk of the story is being written by Theo as he’s stranded in an Amsterdam apartment).
It’s not quite as insightful as Tartt’s debut. Social media and mobile phones’ incorporation into the narrative feels anaemic: The Secret History felt authentic, but Tartt’s growing distance from this generation (she’s now over fifty) limit her insights. Similarly, Theo’s teenage years have a muted, near-absent sense of sexuality that’s certainly inconsistent with my memories of adolescence (there is a suggestion in the middle of the book that this may be because he’s repressing his true sexuality, but this isn’t really addressed).
The neatness of the book is sometimes distracting; narrative economy is great, but given the attempt to conjure the sweep of life, the way characters and moments consistently reappear in the end stretch of the book feels a little wrong; after all, life is all about missed opportunities and wasted potential, and for a long time The Goldfinch seems to be about that until practically every moment from the opening half of the book comes tumbling back into renewed relevance. The insistence of the novel to propose different interpretations of Theo’s journey – and life in general – in the closing chapters is equally excessive. Admittedly, given the length of the book, a thematic summary is not unwelcome.
Overall The Goldfinch is an excellent read. Its length and the deliberate pacing of the first chapters (reflective of a bookish young teenager’s internal voice) might make it a daunting prospect for a casual read, but the warm, engaging prose and sweep of the narrative provide a substantial reward for the slim efforts applied.