When The Goldfinch was first released in 2013, I heard many excellent reviews of Donna Tartt’s work. Having never read her before though, I was reluctant to commit to nearly 800 pages. It wasn’t until I read Tartt’s early novel, The Secret History, that I became excited to read more from her. Thankfully, The Goldfinch doesn’t disappoint.
For an 800-page novel, it’s a surprisingly quick read. Probably because it’s incredibly well-written and (like in The Secret History) Tartt knows how to reveal just the right information at the right rate.
Our main character and narrator is Theo Decker. The story is told from Theo’s adult perspective and we meet him holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam for a reason he doesn’t yet share. From there, he takes us back to his early teens in New York City and his mother’s death. Theo’s mother is killed in a terrorist attack in an art museum; an attack that Theo survives but that forever changes his life.
I didn’t know much about the plot going into this novel and I found it most compelling that way so I don’t want to reveal too much here. His dad having previously abandoned the family, Theo is left on his own, at the mercy of Child Services and the family of a school friend. He also carries a secret from the day of the attack, as well as a surprising relationship that springs from that experience.
The book follows Theo through his teen years before jumping ahead a few years into his twenties. Theo is a likeable protagonist – easy to cheer for and easy to feel frustrated with as he makes poor decisions. Yet sympathy was almost always my overriding emotion when it came to Theo’s poor choices. Tartt does an excellent job of setting Theo up not as a victim of his circumstances but as someone who will always be affected by them and who will, likely, always struggle as a result.
Characters and places are expertly drawn and Tartt pulls the reader into a variety of worlds as Theo stumbles through adolescence and into adulthood. We have art museums and cheap diners in New York. Abandoned subdivisions of Las Vegas. Back rooms full of beautiful furniture and strange, forgotten apartments full of beautiful art. The book’s conclusion and ultimate climax perhaps delve into more of a thriller-style novel than seems to fit with the rest of the book but the characters remain strong and consistent and the plot will pull you forward, wondering what happens next.