One sentence plot
Young New York boy’s mother is killed by an explosion at the Met; he survives, complete with a priceless piece of art, and tries, rudderless, to navigate the rest of his life, which becomes a bit of a thriller.
I’m not one of these hugely devoted Donna Tartt fans. I enjoyed The Secret History. I didn’t bother with The Little Friend as I didn’t like the sound of it. But almost everyone I know’s been talking about The Goldfinch over the past month or two, so I decided to dig in, and was duly rewarded. The Goldfinch is a real tour de force. The characters are wonderful, the plot is engaging and filled with suspense, and the writing is beautiful. I read this over Christmas and barely spoke to my poor friend til it was done. It was a “Just five more minutes!” scenario. (Though it’s a thick book so that was of course a lie.)
The book follows young Theo, who begins by living a cheery New York life with his beloved mother, united against his feckless and recently absent father, until he and his mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when there is an explosion which kills his mother. Theo makes it out alive, after a short and meaningful discussion with a dying old man, whose words set up much of the rest of the book. Theo finds himself very alone when his mother dies and social services try diligently to find out who might take responsibility for him, valuing official lines of responsibility above suitability. As Theo moves between homes, and the adults responsible for him live out their own issues, the first part of the book is a fascinating study in a child’s agency and lack of agency over their own lives, how people have the potential to be many different things, and what makes a child (or anyone) turn out ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and what the difference might be. It examines different types of fate. The question of what is good enough parenting is prominent – when Theo’s feckless father is granted custody and transplants him to a desolate Las Vegas suburb, I had such a sinking feeling it was as though I knew them personally. There was a complex, multi-dimensional, perfectly drawn cast of supporting characters whose personal dramas permeate the book. Amidst all this, there were all sorts of interesting details about fine art and furniture restoring. And Theo just tries to make good, motivated throughout by the possession of the eponymous piece of art that acts like an emotional talisman, though also perhaps a curse.
The second half of the book was less to my personal taste as it morphs from coming of age tale to more of an art theft/seedy underworld type thriller. I found this quite stressful, though entirely congruent with the rest of the book. I couldn’t stop reading it though, because by that time, I was more than hooked. Some revelations came as such surprises that I shrieked at one point. The last couple of hundred pages sped by as I grasped beyond the crime thriller to desperately see what would become of Theo and his band of friends. Though I must say the final 5% of the book took on an annoyingly sanctimonious, pseudo-philosophical preachy tone, this book was an absolute must-read. I read a review suggesting it is Dickensian, and I certainly see an Oliver Twist parallel. I think Tartt is extremely talented and I’ll be reading her next book, regardless of the subject.
The verdict: 5/5 shoes