by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a unique novel in so many ways. It is definitely a book that focuses on characters over plot. It’s incredibly Dickensian and particularly reminded me of Great Expectations. An orphaned boy who ends up being the unexpected ward of a stranger, a romance kindled in youth that leaves our hero pining throughout his life, and a best friend who is a bit scrappy; all the elements are there. Add some devious dealings in the art and furniture world and a drug addiction and you’re spot on.
The story is one that you can really sink into. Theo and his mother experience a traumatic event in the MET art museum one day and life as he knows it is shattered. We follow Theo through more than a decade of his life and across thousands of miles. Each new setting has an abundance of well-drawn characters. From the aging Vegas bartender to the wealthy middle-aged New York City socialite, there’s no shortage of excellent descriptions. After the first time we meet Boris’ father I felt like I would recognize him in an instant if I met him in real life.
"He was as thin and pale as a starved poet. Chlorotic, with a sunken chest, he smoked incessantly, wore cheap shirts that had grayed in the wash, drank endless cups of sugary tea. But when you looked him in the eye you realized that his frailty was deceptive. He was wiry, intense, bad temper shimmering off him—small-boned and sharp-faced, like Boris, but with an evil red-rimmed gaze and tiny, brownish sawteeth. He made me think of a rabid fox."
Although all of the characters are fascinating, it’s actually the supporting cast that has my love over Theo himself. Theo’s self-destructive personality put me on edge at times, but I loved his eccentric friends. Hobie is my favorite and no one does more for Theo than he does. He writes to him when he is in Vegas and makes him feel connected to NYC. He gives him a true home and skill. He is unwavering in his support and encouragement of Theo.
Boris such an odd friend; he’s exactly what Theo needs and the worse thing for him all at the same time. He introduces him to dangerous and unhealthy habits, but he also makes him feel accepted. His unstable and dangerous life almost makes Theo's seem normal in comparison. Boris is also fiercely loyal and accepting, which Theo desperately needs during his time in Vegas.
Tartt’s fans tend to site The Secret History as the best work by their beloved author, but I enjoyed this one much more. I feel like it had more depth and I’m looking forward to her next novel, even though it’s probably a decade away.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth every second for the characters you meet along the way. The story lost its footing at times for me, but I still enjoyed it. Tartt writes in a way that made me not care exactly where the story was going as long as I got to be along for the ride.
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway.”