Book Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

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Winner of 2014 Pulitzer Prize, The Goldfinch tells the life story of Theo Decker. A New York resident with a beautiful mother and an absent father, Theo is just 13 when his mother dies in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art during an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. In the confusion surrounding the attack, an elderly man implores Theo to take a family-heirloom ring and gives him an urgent message to deliver to his partner. Believing the old man was also pointing at The Goldfinch, Theo takes the painting as well. These three events: losing his mother, gaining the ring, and his theft of the painting, will influence the trajectory of his life.
Theo, narrating in the first-person over a period of about 15 years, takes the reader on his journey in the aftermath of that day. Many of his experiences seem to be directed by fate or left to chance. From being taken in by a school friend’s wealthy family, to falling in love with a mysterious red-headed girl who also survived the attack, to chance meetings with people who will become life-long friends and lovers, to welcoming his deadbeat dad back into his life only to have his heart broken again, a cycle of addiction and recovery, moving to Las Vegas, and his slow descent into international antique and art forgery and theft.

Without spoiling too much, every aspect of Theo’s life comes full circle in startlingly different ways. Theo finally reflects on his life, wondering how much of his experiences were unavoidable due to fate or due to his choices and character.

Donna Tartt is a master storyteller and took over a decade to write The Goldfinch. The book is long, with a few critics saying the book would have better been split into a trilogy but it is an epic, exciting, stay-up-all-night-reading book full of richly developed characters that also manages to reflect on sadness and survival, chance and fate, and the role of art in life. Tartt is a master at conveying emotion and describing experiences and telling a story where everything, no matter how small, is connected. Recommended for art lovers, anybody who has ever wondered about how much choice or chance shapes our lives, observers of human nature, and all lovers of literary fiction.

I also highly recommend Tartt’s previous two novels: The Secret History, an inverted mystery, and The Little Friend which is technically a mystery but also an incredible study of good vs evil. Both books are available through Summit.

– Christina Nofziger

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