My favorite part about packing to go on vacation is choosing which book(s) to bring. Although at first I thought my trip to Belize would be a good time for a prototypical “beach read,” I ultimately chose Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for one reason: with exactly twelve chapters, I could read one chapter on each of the twelve days of my vacation.
Of course, that isn’t exactly what happened, because there are some short chapters and some long chapters, and then when I got to the second-to-last chapter, I felt compelled to keep reading and finish the book on the eleventh day of the trip. The best intentions, and all that.
The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker and his coming of age. At thirteen, he is visiting a NYC museum on which a terrorist bombing is carried out. His mother is killed in the blast, and following her death, he is shipped around the city (and then the country) to be raised by different guardians, each more dubiously qualified than the last.
At the center of the story is the 1654 Carel Fabritius painting of a goldfinch, after which the book is titled.
What I Liked
Of the twelve chapters, eleven feature a distinct, defining moment in the story and moving the plot forward. In several cases, Theo meets a character who will play an important role later in the story; In others, it’s an event that advances the plot.
Though it’s largely plot-driven, the characters are fully realized. Theo is a majorly unreliable narrator, and Tartt is smart about the information she withholds to illustrate his unreliability.
One of those characters who Theo meets in one chapter and plays a big role later is his classmate Boris. Boris is a bit of a loose cannon and Theo’s best friend. When Boris first appeared in the story, I was glad Theo had found a friend but thought it would be a mistake to trust him. Later, Boris reveals why he didn’t trust Theo (and in the process, confirms his own untrustworthiness.)
While Theo and Boris are not always likeable and their circumstances are often dire, both are sympathetic characters and I rooted for them.
What I Didn’t Like
As I mentioned, eleven of the twelve chapters each have a purpose in moving the plot forward. The last chapter sticks out like a sore thumb. While a resolution is reached, it’s told in Theo’s inner monologue, and pure exposition. It didn’t feel earned.
In later chapters, Theo had been edging towards finding a kind of redemption, and Tartt showed this to the reader through scenes: sometimes interactions with other characters, or often depicting Theo alone, making choices and taking actions. So I was very disappointed for the last chapter to be all tell and no show.
I really enjoyed The Goldfinch, despite its somewhat depressing storyline. I’ve hinted at it, but let me be straight with you – this book is a downer. At one point while I was reading it, I said to my mom, “I think things are going to start looking up for this kid, because I don’t see how it can get any worse.” Well, just a couple pages later … it got worse. Nonetheless, the writing is engaging and believable, and ultimately I quite liked the book.
Tartt was awarded Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for The Goldfinch, which sparked a minor controversy, with critics saying the book was too fluffy to be a contender for the award. I’m a bit puzzled by this – on the one hand, yes, the book is plot-driven, and yes, it was a bestseller that many readers liked. But on the other hand, it’s well written, and the characters are fully realized. Does a book have to be obscure or dense to be considered “serious” enough to win a Pulitzer? I think this is a huge non-troversy and that it’s nice to see major recognition given to a book by both everyday readers and literary awards.
The Goldfinch was Publisher’s Weekly’s “Pick of the Week” for the week it was reviewed.