The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Hardcover, First American Edition, 771 pages


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.

My rating:

“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.”

The Goldfinch is that picture for me. I looked at it only once and it birthed a swarm of emotions and thoughts inside of me. Donna Tartt is akin to modern Dostoevsky to me. Her philosophy is brutal but honest. Every time I go into her book I expect something fictional, having little to do with real life, something of a more ephemeral quality, and every time she hits me with realism by pushing me out of my comfort zone. Tartt’s characters are always morally ambiguous, always searching for the higher purpose, but often faced with self-deceit of great expectations.

Unlike The Secret History that deals with the question of morality under the lens of privilege and permissiveness, The Goldfinch is more subtle when it comes to showing its face. It is as if Donna Tartt wanted her readers to get attached to the book and then suffer as victims of Stockholm Syndrome. She deliberately makes us doubt our belief in good and evil, counterpointing that good does not always results in good, and bad actions could lead to a good outcome. A rather daring statement. But Tartt goes further and proves her point by showing her readers what exactly she means by her thesis. And I must confess it’s a fascinating game to watch. I found myself torn between loving and hating Tartt’s characters, but at the end of the day, I was surprised to admit I related with them more than I could’ve imagined at first. I believe it’s the magic of the Goldfinch – the closeness readers have with the narrative, unlike The Secret History’s one, where I was just a passerby witnessing a demoralization of the characters. Plus the alluring part of the Goldfinch is the ending that gives more hope in people, unlike The Secret History (view spoiler).

What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”

The Goldfinch is the story of a young boy Theodor Decker who faces tragedy at a rather young age and finds himself adrift in the world of adults – a rather cruel and unprincipled world. His only consolation is the picture of a famous 16th-century painter – The Goldfinch. Only with that picture, Theo finds himself grounded, but it is also the trigger that leads Theo into the world of underground art.

Even at the beginning of the book, Donna Tartt plays her cards by foreshadowing future events with a kind of doom: the readers are informed that something bad had happened and we are here to understand how it had happened and why. This method is similar to the one Daphne du Maurier uses in her Rebecca, but it is in no way diminishes the efficiency of that literary device. For a blasé reader like myself, it works as a good start-push of my senses: I am alert and ready.

Symbolism also plays a great part in the book: The Goldfinch is the symbol of Theo’s mother’s love whom he lost at a young age. The picture of the chained but defiant little bird who also, in a way, reminds us of Theo. Theo who, in a way, chained to the memory the picture gives him. The memory and chains that consequently lead Theo to ruin. It’s a circle with no beginning and no 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.”

The versatility of Tartt’s talent is astonishing: she can easily write about Greek literature and then, with the same ease, turn to the topic of art. I always find it a great deal of delight (even though a torturous one) to read her books, opening new topics and boundaries for me to explore.

I honestly could write ten more essay pages about the Goldfinch, its symbolism, its characters, its culture ect. It’s a vast field of literary genius to explore. But I am afraid it will turn this review into a very boring essay, which we don’t want to happen if only for the reason that reading The Goldfinch is an experience worthy of its 700 pages, and every reader will definitely find a lot of meanings for themselves. I am sure the Goldfinch is a new classic that once you’ve looked at, you will remember forever.

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