The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt.

The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt. Little, Brown New York, 2013. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle.

This is an impressive story that probably deserved its prize. There is more than enough to grab and hold your interest: characters you have sympathy with, moral and semi-philosophic questions, and also a serious dose of addiction, death, and thriller pace. I read it fast and was sorry to see it end. But on reflection I ended up thinking this wonderful author was overreaching, just a bit.

Theo our narrator starts out in New York a teenage schoolboy and ends up in Amsterdam a 30-ish man of very wide experience through addiction, criminality, fraud, wealth, love, and death. PLOT ALERT His mother dies in an art gallery bombing that also nearly kills him. He carries from the gallery the small painting of the book’s title which was his mother’s favorite, and it figures substantively and symbolically through the storyline END PLOT ALERT.  He falls into addiction while still a teenager living with his prince-of-falsehood father in the ratty underside of Las Vegas, temporarily leaves an amoral Russian friend behind there, returns to New York and works with the colleague of a gentleman who died beside him in the art gallery, sees but has trouble reconnecting with the strangely attractive and troubled girl he exchanged glances with there just before everything changed, and then walks through an arcade of thriller events that pull him away from a planned but empty society marriage, to the dénouement’s twist.

I had just finished Wallace’s essays and The Pale King, and had to adjust to a huge style change: here it’s effete and both louche and aristocratic. Theo is no midwest small-town 13-year-old, he’s breaking the rules in his New York private school and commenting on “beautifully-tailored” clothing. He subtly falsifies antiques and shops at Tiffany’s for wedding china. And in the early going some of the encyclopedic over-exuberant lists of room contents and human experiences jabbering with excessive detail felt like an overstocked antique shop. But the style suits the subject and beautiful artifacts are described in what I think is this author’s true voice.

And there is also some very convincing writing on another subject she must understand pretty well:

On the marble top of the dresser I crushed one of my imported old-style Oxycontins, rolling the crispest bill in my wallet — leaned to the table, eyes damp with anticipation: ground zero, bam, bitter taste in the back of the throat and then the gust of relief, falling backward on the bed as the sweet old punch hit me square in the heart: pure pleasure, aching and bright, far from the tin-can clatter of misery.

My art-gallery experience (not the coincidental extreme one figuring so heavily in the plot early on) rescued me from the Las Vegas hard-money nightmare as Theo gathered moral substance, doing drugs and skipping school with deeply ambiguous friend Boris, worrying over the difference between his mother’s aesthetic-oriented love and his dad’s sickening self-interest. Step-mother figure Zandra nails him with her parting telephone shot “You’re a lot like your dad”. He’s bad enough (and we know he knows it): alcoholic and drug-addicted, thief and fraudster, planning a marriage consisting pretty much of money. Or is he just a victim of circumstance poor boy? Pippa (not I thought the best-named character I’ve ever encountered) and Hobie (likewise) and eventually Boris (three for three), along with his mum, are the better world he knows he should be living in. Just wait! he seems to keep insisting to us, it’ll all fall together as soon as I straighten the issue of the painting out.

And it does (and he does), sort of, but eventually…not quite. The longest chapter (“The Idiot”) diminishes for me wonderful Theo’s credibility as he isn’t really bothered by Kitsie’s shallowness and Reeve’s threats. There are at least three extremely improbable chance meetings in New York (two from the same family) and I did my very best but never could find the central metaphor of the painting emotionally convincing. PLOT ALERT Theo never having anything reciprocal and real with Pippa END PLOT ALERT seems to point us toward his relationship to the painting as the big idea behind all the excitement: art, beauty… the aesthetic message. But then at the end we get a nonfiction-style description of a middle ground between reality and perception consisting of love for beautiful things. It’s a nice idea, but it feels tacked on because author is afraid we need to be told because she knows she didn’t show us.

Nicely-written and -constructed stuff that just missed this sentimentalist by a foot or two. 8.0/8.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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