Where to start? Most certainly, one of my favorite fictional reads ever. This dark, visual tale grabs hold of you tight and doesn’t let go until the end. It is both bewitching and haunting, glittering and dark. The Goldfinch nabbing a Pulitzer, not surprising me in the least, as her writing is superb. In my opinion, spinning magic with her words. The settings, as much a part of the story as the actual characters.
“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
The story told is of Theodore Decker, a barely teenaged boy whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack explosion during their day together at a NYC museum. Theodore makes it out physically intact but emotionally shattered and psychologically devastated. This moment, setting in motion the trajectory of the rest of his life, as any event like this would be sure to, and into the kind of person he will become. Hint: not such a great one.
On his way out of the museum, dazed, disoriented, panicked, he lifts a small painting lying alongside him in the rubble-laden, dusty, apocalyptic aftermath of the bomb detonation. This painting, the Goldfinch, an apparently renowned one, is another crucial part of the tale.
Meanwhile, on attempting to reconcile with the loss of his mother to whom he was very close, Theo descends into darkness and self annihilation. Spiraling into consuming drug addiction, as well as allowing his heart to harden. His self contempt so great, he becomes the ultimate in self serving. He is not kind, nor with any semblance of conscience or warmth of heart. In fact, nearly none of the characters in this story are especially likable, with the exception of potentially Theo’s mother, Hobby, and Pippa (Theo’s long-term, unrequited, much longer for from afar love interest).
However, that is part of what lends this story its stronghold. The characters, while not people with whom you would ever wish to associate, are compelling, some even contradictory, and such fun to read about.
Basing a books main merit on its characters likability is silliness and misguided, akin to basing a restaurants quality on its convenience of location or friendliness of staff. Neither of which have any bearing on whether the food is delicious or not. Roxane Gay writes a particularly thought provoking essay with regard to this very topic. Our basing books overall reviews and supposed quality on how likable or not the characters are, and how this misses the mark.
Characters, like real human beings, should have both good in them, and bad. We all do. Some people, with more of one than the other. At times, each of us are likable, and at other times, unlikable. Well drawn, layered, intriguing characters can and should be both. And sometimes, as in real life, some characters will be deeply unlikable. As can be the case with authentic people too.
“We are so customed to disguise ourselves to others that, in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.”
― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
I’ve read a few novels in which a main character was despicable, and the story was supremely lacking. In which case, fine, by all means, this combination can result in a book that fails to deliver and isn’t one in which you can find yourself engaged in or gaining much personal worth by reading. But, unlikable characters on their own do not a bad book make. And certainly not in the instance of The Goldfinch, which packs a memorable wallop.
The authors descriptions of scenes are equally as compelling as her characters. Frequently, her description of a particular city, or even a home or room, are wildly visual, rich, even poetic.
The Goldfinch is a dark one. Metaphorically compatible with the image of a bony, crooked finger, curling inwardly with an invitation to the reader. Beckoning ones descent down a long, seeming darkened alleyway, though from which one of the walls seem to shimmer with iridescent glitter in a particular light on turning ones gaze just so. The book has been compared to a Charles Dickens esque aura, with which I agree.
Its a towering tale, a rollicking ride, shadowy and enthralling, with passages and moments of luminosity and wonder throughout. It’s a world which one would never wish to inhabit, though which is thrilling and gripping to peer into and watch the wild ride unfold.