I have never been as conflicted about a book as I am about The Goldfinch.
For the first half of Donna Tartt’s celebrated novel, I was hooked. I read it slowly, treating myself to it chapter by chapter. I recommended it to every reader I knew. I bristled in indignation when I read an article quoting critics who thought it was poorly written and didn’t deserve its Pulitzer Prize — of course Theo thinks in clichés like ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ he’s only thirteen! I was certain I was reading one of my future favorite books.
And then … the second half happened, and I was left wondering whether the emperor had any clothes.
(NB: This review contains more spoilers than I normally include in my reviews; they are all fairly vague, but you have been warned.)
After a brief prologue featuring a mysterious adult in an Amsterdam hotel, The Goldfinch opens on an average morning for thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker. Well, not quite average — he’s been suspended from school. He and his beloved mother set out for a day in New York City, including a visit to a museum that is currently displaying one of his mother’s favorite paintings, Carel Fabritius’s tiny masterpiece “The Goldfinch.”
We are warned early in the book that this is the day Theo’s mother will die. It is also the day that Theo will steal — largely by accident — “The Goldfinch,” one of the most valuable paintings in the world.
The first half of The Goldfinch follows Theo as he tries to cope with his mother’s death — a situation made more difficult by the fact that his father is an alcoholic deadbeat whom neither he nor his mom have heard from in years. Theo’s journey has a deeply Dickensian feeling about it. We meet characters like the kindly Hobie, a furniture restorer; Mrs. Barbour, the chilly yet caring woman who becomes Theo’s temporary guardian; Boris, the galvanic and semi-criminal Ukranian who becomes his best friend; and Pippa, a girl Theo’s age that he met on the fateful day his mother died. We follow Theo through various neighborhoods in New York City, to a wasteland-like suburb in Nevada, and then back across the country in a crazed, zig-zag journey. All the time, Theo carries “The Goldfinch” with him, obsessed with its proper care and most comforted when he looks at its beauty.
I fell in love with young Theo, a smart and vulnerable kid who could be selfish and snotty in one moment, and then clever and compassionate in the next. Young Theo did not have much control over his life, but when he gained some, he acted — sometimes recklessly, but always with a plan, and never with the intention to hurt anyone. My heart sank when Theo fell into the clutches of a Fagan-like figure and cheered when he escaped. When I turned the page and saw that The Goldfinch had time-jumped to Theo’s twenties, I became even more excited about the book. I couldn’t wait to see where Theo’s life had taken him.
Unfortunately, adult Theo is one of the dullest stock characters in modern literature: the Twenty-Something White New Yorker Suffering from Ennui.
It’s immediately apparent that adult Theo has a near-debilitating drug problem. He thinks so little of the women he dates that he doesn’t even refer to them by their names. He’s involved in some seedy dealings in his professional life. He’s also unhealthily obsessed with Pippa, who assumes the tiresome role of “unattainable woman who won’t love the protagonist back.”
I absolutely believe that someone like Theo, who lost a beloved parent and was then tossed between temporary homes, would grow up to have some major issues. But The Goldfinch fails to make adult Theo at all compelling. I can’t fault the book as a portrait of a drug addict who feels his life has little interest or meaning, but adult Theo is much too passive a character to carry the increasingly crazy events that happen in the second half of the novel. The plot might as well be happening to a Tamagotchi or a box of Ritz crackers.
My frustration only grew in the book’s final pages, as three major characters close out the novel with lengthy monologues. One monologue seems to argue that “there is no good or bad”; the next talks about art and its effect on particularly sensitive people; the third, by Theo himself, argues that life is a catastrophe and that people have no control over who they are or what they want.
I don’t want to make the mistake of automatically conflating the characters’ beliefs with the book’s view or the author’s opinion, but in the case of The Goldfinch, I felt that the three closing monologues were meant to excuse adult Theo’s worst behavior and to portray his actions as honest, even noble in a way. I couldn’t agree. It wasn’t that I wanted to see Theo punished, but the book seemed to conclude that this was the only way things could have gone for Theo — and that conclusion honestly made me a little angry. There are a lot of people in this world who don’t have choices, whose circumstances close off so many options that there is little or nothing they can do to change their paths. A twenty-something who can get his hands on $16,000 in cash on an hour’s notice is not one of those people. The Goldfinch has a deep understanding of Theo’s suffering, but seems utterly unaware of his privilege.
Powerful novels often invoke strong emotions in their readers, so perhaps my anger and frustration is a sign that The Goldfinch is more profound than I’m giving it credit for. But that doesn’t change how slow and uninteresting the book becomes in its second half. Ultimately, however much I loved the first half of the book, I can’t quite recommend it.