Theo Decker is a thirteen-year old boy who lives in New York with his mother. He adores her and she adores him, but he gets very nervous when she, one day, has to stay home from work in order to meet with his school – for what reason, he doesn’t know. He can only suspect why he’s in trouble. Before they head to school, they go to the museum for a quick visit, because Theo’s mother loves art. That’s when Theo’s life changes forever. There is an explosion which leaves his mother one of the many dead, and Theo with a priceless painting of a goldfinch and no idea what to do with it.
His life after that tragic occurrence is defined by his mother’s death and his new-found obsession with the painting. Circumstance and choice takes him to live in new places and meet new people, always in the shadow of his self-destructive behaviour.
The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt’s most recent book (published in 2013). Unfortunately she’s not a prolific writer in the sense that she mass-produces novels (she’s only ever written three); but she is prolific when it comes to her novels’ length. This one is 860-odd pages long. It did drag on a bit, and I did complain to anyone who would listen that nothing much happens. But boy can she write. She writes with such rich detail, about such mundane things, finding the beauty in the everyday things yet with a nihilistic undercurrent. The ugliness is palpable, permeating almost everything our main character and his friends do and think. Only minor characters display any sense of morality, and we are led to believe that Theo is destroyed and beyond redemption. I found that hard to stomach. His circumstances were tough, but the author’s descriptions of Theo’s mother, their relationship and the stability of her character made me think that there would be a stronger core to Theo, a result of her almost angelic perfection in her role as a mother and as a person in general. How then did he end up in the situations he did? How was there never any doubt in his mind, even as a teenager, that the only path for him was one of self- destruction? Theo reminded me of the main character in Tartt’s Secret History: things happened to him, and he was seemingly unable to stop them. I found that infuriating, because he was able to stop them.
Despite my aversion to most of the characters depicted in this book, it was a novel I enjoyed very much. Poetry, humour, descriptions of places so vivid that I felt like I was there. Even the titular Goldfinch: I cannot claim to be interested in art, or antiquities for that matter, but Tartt’s obvious love for the subject was contagious.
I wish Tartt would write shorter novels, but more often.