When 13-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in tragic circumstances, he encounters a strange and lovely painting of a goldfinch. Through life’s trials and tribulations, the painting offers Theo a glimpse of something wonderful, if only he could figure out what it means…
To be honest, I don’t even know where to start. This is one of the most absorbing, ambitious, brilliantly realised novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Moving, unpredictable and insightful, it’s also incredibly easy to read – a hand that takes yours, and gently pulls you along.
Despite its length – more than 800 pages – this remarkable story never feels overstretched or repetitive. Partly because of the high stakes involved. There’s death and loss, addiction, madness, crime, enduring friendship and unrequited love. The rich and complex characters are also captivating. Theo himself is a flawed and engaging narrator, but everyone has a pleasing solidity to them; a sense that they all have lives we only get to see a bit of. When even minor players like Goldie or Andy leave the story, there’s a genuine sense of absence. For all the exciting, criminal activities of the last few chapters, I was constantly worrying about Hobie. Would Reeve somehow get his claws into him? Would he be okay running the shop by himself? What did he make of Theo’s parting gifts to Pippa? With even a small number of characters this would be impressive, but with such a big cast it’s quite astonishing.
Of course, what also compels is Theo’s growth. His movement though depression and isolation towards something like redemption. Or revelation. By the end, for all his (understandable) cynicism, Theo grasps an important truth: the only thing that makes life bearable is each other. And beautiful things are a way to solidify and communicate the very best parts of ourselves.
It’s something Theo comes to gradually, making an unconscious distinction between preservers and users. Hobie’s appreciation of objects is genuine, reflecting and magnifying the best aspects of his nature. His restoration is almost a sort of time travel. He wants to impress the person who will be restoring the piece a hundred years from now. What Hobie does will outlast him. His labour has an authenticity to it, a power and honourability all its own. Users, on the other hand, only acquire beautiful things – furniture, jewellery, art. They don’t make or preserve or even enjoy these lovely things. They can’t think beyond their own self-aggrandisement or covetousness. It’s all rather short sighted, juvenile.
While this understanding slowly dawns on Theo, in the face of his losses he is pulled between two possible responses. Pippa is grounded in the present – living with her stable, pleasant boyfriend, in a stable, pleasant manner. But she is unable to move forward in any meaningful way. She’s always pulled back to New York, unable to make peace with the loss of her musical skill. Boris on the other hand is not grounded at all. Freewheeling all over the world, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. He has no real roots, nothing solid, no plans. If good things can go bad, and bad things can come good – why make plans at all? Not that he lacks a moral code, it’s just relative.
As he grows, Theo seems to be thrashing out a middle way. One of his most moving and important realisations is that he can make the people around him happy. That his actions affect the people around him. Against the backdrop of such loss and isolation, he grasps that every life, however small, has some significance.
Worth mentioning here how brilliantly Tartt handles the business of storytelling. The sense of place is superb – bustling, melting-pot New York, in a constant state of decay and renewal; the strange netherworld of Las Vegas, city being reclaimed by the desert, almost desperately sprawling, fighting back against the nature that surrounds it; sleepy, ancient Amsterdam, a neat, crisp fairy-tale, quietly marred on the fringes by ugly modernity.
Characterisation is also excellent, convincing and frequently surprising: Theo’s father shows occasional flashes of paternal awareness; Mrs Barbour’s chilly composure gives way to a depth of feeling; brilliant, puckish Boris demonstrates real affection and attachment. It’s not just that people are layered; they have each had a life up until now and they have been shaped by those experiences. It makes you realise how fragile we all are, how buffered by the tides.
And this all feeds into Theo’s big realisation, the importance of touching that immortal part of ourselves and human experience. In lesser hands, it could feel trite, but here it’s profound: both frightening and optimistic. Life is just a fleeting quirk of biology, but art and beauty can be passed on through the generations. Every piece that is loved and saved – the very act of enjoying and preserving – is a little rebuke to mortality, a wee nod to the future. If writing the book is Theo’s contribution to this ongoing rejection of life’s impermanence, then reading the book has made us part of that process too. It’s as if we’re being challenged to go out and do something better. Or save something worth saving.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to book a trip to the Mauritshuis. There’s an old painting I’d like to have a look at…
Did you enjoy The Goldfinch? Did you find it easy to read? Were you convinced by its conclusion? Would you like to go and poke around an antiques shop with me? Let me know!