Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One of the best reviewed (and despised) novels of the past decade, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch tells the tale of Theo Decker, a young man coming of age in New York City and Las Vegas during the early decades of the 21st Century. Many have compared The Goldfinch to a modern version of a Dickens novel in the tradition of David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Tartt creates vivid characters. Her writing style channels the suspense and excitement of life. Theo's not the most appealing character, more of a modern day Holden Caulfield, but he's a remarkable narrator. Like Homer, the epic story does what only the best books can do - resonate after reading them. The characters are real and their world blends with your own.

The novel begins with 13 year old Theo visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mom (they are very close) on a day he's been suspended from school. An explosion at the museum leaves Theo an orphan, forever separating him from his mom. The loss sets his life on an entirely different trajectory. Theo is taken in by a wealthy New York family, then moves to Las Vegas to live with his estranged father who left months earlier. Once in Vegas he meets Boris, a Russian who will become his best friend, easily the most memorable character in the novel. The son of a Russian miner, Boris seems to have been everywhere and done everything by the age of 15. Together, Theo and Boris have many misadventures often fueled by alcohol. Another tragedy brings Theo back to New York for the second half of the novel.

Back in New York, Theo becomes an antique dealer under the tutelage of Hobie who becomes his mentor and surrogate father. They share a connection to event that started the book. More secrets are revealed as Theo comes of age, mostly surrounding a stolen painting that connects all the characters. The second half loses some momentum as themes of addiction, fate, friendship, and fate vs chance are all explored. Is everything connected? Or is everything random? Or both? The final section moves to Amsterdam and briefly loses focus, but lands on its feet over the last 100 pages.

Great novels illuminate life; opens up new possibilities. Moments, imagery, and characters feel hauntingly real thanks to Tartt's immersive writing style. A novel about art, specifically the question of beauty and whether art makes us better people. Art is a positive force in the life of Theo, his mom, and Hobie, yet all see it differently.  What gives us meaning seems to be the question Tartt's attempting to answer in this 800+ page book.

Tartt's novel created a stir among critics who dismissed it as too popular and not literary enough. One may call it a potboiler, but the themes are heavy and the characters are complex. Even in our period of hyper technology and political instability, aspects of modern life Tartt wisely avoids, although I think it's possible to get a political subtext out of the story.  Human emotion and experience remains the same, questions that occupied Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens still hover over everything else. Tartt gets this and harnesses the power of the written word in the best way possible.