I’ve done my best to avoid all the reviews and brouhaha around The Goldfinch justifiable though it is – it’s been a decade since The Little Friend and two since The Secret History had us all entranced – but I wanted to come to it fresh. As a result I missed the Kirsty Wark interview, falling into the trap of expecting it to be on iPlayer, so I’m grateful to Lizzi at These Little Words for pointing those of us who missed out towards this short clip – who would have guessed that the notoriously reclusive Donna Tartt writes in the New York Library?
This is a difficult review to write – so much to say about such a huge and accomplished novel but so much to give away that you need to discover for yourself. I gather reviewers have fallen into love it or hate it territory with The Goldfinch so just to say from the start, I’m in the former. It begins with a bang – quite literally – as a bomb goes off in the middle of an art exhibition. Suspended from school, thirteen-year-old Theo Decker is there with his mother, on his way to the gift shop to buy her some cards his eye caught by a glimpse of a young red-headed girl when the explosion hits. In the ensuing confusion, Theo comforts what he thinks is the girl’s grandfather, clearly dying, who gives him a signet ring and points him towards a painting imploring Theo to save it. Traumatised, longing desperately for his mother, Theo is taken in by the wealthy family of his one-time best friend. So begins a life of dislocation, yearning and loss.
Theo tells his own story, drawing us into the worlds he barely seems to inhabit himself – the claustrophobic privilege of the Barbours, the racketiness of two years in Las Vegas with his father where he meets the amoral Boris already ducking and diving at fifteen, the all-embracing cultivated warmth of Hobie’s home to which the signet ring leads him – the one constant being Fabritius’ exquisite painting, gorgeous in its simplicity, always under wraps. Tartt’s gloriously ambitious novel is studded with memorable Dickensian characters – the avuncular Hobie takes in orphaned Theo and teaches him a trade; Boris is the ultimate survivor, able to navigate his way around the seamier side of the world; the Barbours are quintessential New York old money, and dysfunctional with it. It’s a novel of great complexity: a thriller, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, a philosophical treatise and an erudite history of art, all wrapped up in a rattling good yarn. Best advice is to read it, not to be put off by its length – just sink in to it and enjoy.
I was fascinated to hear that Tartt threw away eight months of writing and wondered at which point she’d done it. I do have a theory – anyone else who’s read it have one?