By Leanne Soo, published July 1st, 2022
TW: abuse, attempted suicide, depression, neglect, PTSD, substance abuse, terrorism
The Goldfinch narrates Theodore Decker’s life after his mother dies in a terrorist bombing attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he steals her favourite painting, The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius. It follows his discovery of the world of art, alcohol, drugs, and love.
This novel was quite difficult to read as Tartt’s writing is extremely intricate. It is descriptive, but at times, gives too much detail. One sentence could take up half a page, which is probably why the book is 771 pages long. I caught myself skimming the page – I never do that! That says something, I think. Additionally, none of the characters are particularly likeable. Out of around twenty characters, there were approximately three that I liked. Tartt dragged the book on too long and described heavy themes in heaps of detail, which makes it difficult to continue reading. One of my least favourite sections is when Theodore becomes friends with Boris. The pair experiment with drugs and alcohol and go down a path of self-destruction. Tartt describes how they drink and get high as soon as school is over. Sure, this is important to portray Boris’s character and how Theo gets sucked into a life of addiction, but multiple pages of extensive description led me to become desensitized to the fact that teenagers taking hard drugs is extremely unhealthy. However, she does a good job portraying addiction and rehab.
Tartt relies on the use of stereotypes to describe her characters. But it works. “A drenched crowd of Asian senior citizens surged past, after a crisp stewardessy guide; bedraggled Girl Scouts huddled whispering near the coat check; beside the information desk stood a line of militaryschool cadets in gray dress uniforms, hats off, clasped hands behind their backs” (page 28). Or another example: “Hadley, an army brat, was on the swim team and sang in the school choir; she had a normal family with three siblings, a Weimaraner named Gretchen that she’d brought over from Germany, and a dad who yelled if she was out past her curfew” (page 399). She describes regular, ordinary people who we’ve observed over the course of our lives. We know what they look like, and with a couple of adjectives, we’ve already pictured them in our minds. And this is because we know someone like Hadley or the Girl Scouts. While these might be generalizations, because they have been ingrained into society through media, it is effective.
The portrayal of teen relationships is quite accurate. The awkwardness as they get to know each other, and the nervousness, as well as overthinking when it comes to texting. It may be painful to read, but it really sells youthfulness. All of this actually gets the reader more involved in their relationship; following how Nick and Charlie’s relationship develops is very wholesome.
I have noticed that Tartt’s style consists of a hook in the form of a couple of out-of-context pages pulled from the end. She then goes into the past to develop the characters and build up to the scene from the beginning. This is actually quite brilliant because wanting to know how Theo ended up in Amsterdam became my reason to finish the book. She does the same in The Secret History, although the hook is even more interesting because it consists of a group of friends murdering and burying a friend.
I am nearly finished with The Secret History, and what I love about these two novels is the engrossing knowledge of particular disciplines. In The Secret History, it is languages and history, whereas, in The Goldfinch, it is antique furniture repair and restoration. In this world, there’s a longing to learn, to understand. These little tidbits of expertise are presented in such a way that it briefly satisfies this yearning by immersing one in the scene. If you like the academia aesthetics, this book is definitely for you.
Overall, I would suggest starting with The Secret History. Tartt’s writing style definitely is not for everyone, and it is around 200 pages shorter, deals with less triggering themes, and has better-developed suspense (so it should be easier to get through). If you liked it, then move on to The Goldfinch because the plot is not as interesting in comparison, but at least you’ll enjoy her writing.