At just under 800 pages Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch isn’t the kind of book you take lightly. That’s a joke of course, because the subject of the book is far from light itself: the maturation of a boy grappling with the loss of family/innocence, the role of art and beauty in making life worth living, the bonds and responsibilities of affiliative relationships (as opposed to ‘filial,’ or familial relationships, affiliative are those relationships with those we freely choose) and the consequences (or lack thereof) of making ‘bad’ and ‘good’ choices (and whether such choices are, in the end, ours to make).
It is a rich, complex, heady story with masterful plot sequencing and character development. It is a book that has been uniformly celebrated by literary critics and masses of readers in an unusual congruence of what is both literary and popular as both groups connect with the complexity of the protagonist, Theo, who is simultaneously sympathetic for his orphan-hood and frustrating for his continued terrible decision making. The art heist elements lend a certain suspense, the post-event narration allows an editorializing on events as they unfold that does double duty as assurance to readers and warning that supposedly innocuous events are going to have dire consequences. The atmosphere of the novel – a combination of the dire with the luxurious – speaks to the experience of this contemporary reader: a constant striving coupled with a certainty that at no point will the material objects ever amount to real feelings of security, safety or happiness.
While this reader (I might be so bold to say I am both literary and popular – bam!) delighted in the writing and the genius of the plot and its thematic questions, I found Theo and his story somewhat uneven. I devoured the story in Theo’s years in New York, yet found his time with and post-Boris (his great friend) to be alternately plodding and disconnected. I read Boris’ unpredictability and intensity as in some ways a scapegoat for Theo’s choices and also as convenient ways to resolve apparent impediments in Theo’s life. Boris to the rescue! Boris as catalyst! While the relationship between the two character is far from pat – in fact the evolution of their friendship and relationship is fascinating – Boris’s function in the novel at times reads as too much plot incitement.
So too my sympathy for Theo waned as the narrative continued. A characterization meant to remind the reader that we are only so tolerant of those with addiction, mental illness, those overcome with grief and trauma, that we are willing – for a time – to be gracious and understanding and then we want people to “get over it” to “move on” to “pull themselves together.” The Goldfinch resists this impulse. Instead we are made to suffer along with Theo as he makes, remakes, and makes again the same mistakes and poor decisions – while knowing that he’s doing so. I suppose the frustration and annoyance is, then, that I somehow want my fictional characters to do what I cannot. I want them to be braver, stronger, better than I am. So it’s not a complaint so much as a warning that Theo is not a hero, even if he has heroic aspirations, he is instead utterly human and truthful about what that means: to do the wrong thing over and over and to still (somehow) hope and plan to be better.
I find myself struggling to come out with a definite conclusion/recommendation on the novel. I suppose I don’t have to do that with these posts. I can, instead, give you my impressions and leave it to you to decide. Much in the same way, I suppose (though without the genius of Tartt) as the novel does in asking the reader, in the end, to pass judgement on what makes for a good life, a life good enough, and a life that we somehow fall/stumble into without deciding only to realize – with horror, sadness or resignation – that the last page is fast approaching.