The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

March 08, 2021

I find it hard to judge books like these. On one hand, the writing was, at times, amazing. It would draw me in and make me want to keep reading, or well, listening since this one was consumed as an audiobook. Yet at other times I wouldn't even be able to tell what Donna Tartt was trying to get at.

I thought the beginning was really interesting. Tartt builds up the entirety of Theo, giving the reader an excruciatingly detailed view of his life. During the museum fiasco, I did think it a little strange how Theo was just pushed aside in the crowd despite having clearly just come from within the museum, not looking great etc (though to be fair, I've never been in such a situation before). But suspension of disbelief and such I suppose. Then we’re taken on another journey through the Barber’s household. These parts honestly seem a blur to me, a bunch of names are brought up around here and throughout the beginning and I had a hard time trying to remember who was who and who did what. Only Pippa and Hobie seem somewhat relevant though their portions of the story do end up being a little disappointing. Moreover, I didn’t really feel like anyone was truly important at this point.

Maybe it’s messy story-telling, or maybe it was a genius move to emulate how Theo must’ve been feeling during these weeks: disoriented, more than a little apathetic, and practically disconnected from reality. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt here, and say the latter- after all, this is what I would write if I were to write an essay on the subject. In any case, Theo’s father, who had walked out years before, shows up to whisk him away to his new life, and somehow Theo’s able to grab the painting and transport it away too.

I find Theo’s time in Las Vegas the most compelling part of the story. I’m not sure why. It is essentially just a new, heavily contrasted version of his time alone in New York with the Barber’s. Instead of a rich, prim home filled with housekeepers, he finds on the edge of a scathing desert where his days are blurred in equal part by the heat, alcohol, smoking, and his new friend Boris.

I find it interesting that I can only recall these parts of the book as a blur, since the writing is so chock full of details and descriptors, and this was even a part that I enjoyed. I theorize that it may actually be because of the amount of detail written into the story. It simply isn’t possible for my small brain to hold every aspect of the story written out, so I’m forced to extrapolate for myself what I think was important. Similar to real life I guess. As we live, an extraordinary amount of information is constantly being processed by our brains, and all that noise has to get filtered. What we end up recalling is just fragments, a blurry picture we paint for ourselves.

Anyways, all this to say that I liked this part. I thought his time in Vegas really helped to develop his character, give some background as to how he acts for the rest of the book, and gives a great introduction to Boris, though I do believe his character falls off a little towards the end. In some ways, this area of the book feels like it’s own little coming-of-age story hidden away in the middle of another novel.

The last third of the book stands roughly as the “ending” for me, and it felt substantially less cohesive than the first two parts. Sure, Theo grows up and his own world expands to include both entirely new characters as well as new iterations of childhood acquaintances, but none of them were too engaging and again, I found myself not really caring about them. I don’t have much to say about this portion other than that events felt more disconnected than the rest of the story.

When we get to the the very end of the story, we reach the point where Boris reveals that he returned the painting for the reward, no questions asked. He goes on a long spiel about how maybe only the end result matters and all the events that happen along the way don’t actually matter because in the end, they did good by returning the painting and finding many others like it. Essentially that not only good acts will lead to good outcomes, it can be a mixed bag. I don’t usually like these kinds of expositions by the characters themselves. I read somewhere in another review that The Goldfinch is like a children’s book for adults, and while I won’t go that far, this part by Boris does nudge it towards that direction. There is really nothing gained from hearing Boris push his explanations onto Theo. In my opinion it would’ve been stronger had the ending been left open for the reader to take away their own ideas, about material, fleeting beauty, about fate, the quantification of good and bad. All open ended ideas that even with Boris’ monologue, don’t come any closer to being answered by the end.

Though I wouldn't consider The Goldfinch to be a masterpiece, I did enjoy listening to it, was engrossed throughout most of it, especially the initial half. The writing was consistently great, I only wish I found the story just as consistent.