This was not just a long novel, it’s a BIG one. Big ideas, big characters, and a story you’ll be thinking about long after you read the book. The Goldfinch starts with a 13 year old boy, Theo, losing his beloved mother in a museum bombing. Sadly, his life doesn’t get any easier from there. It’s also a book about a painting, an important work of art.
Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.
Her death the dividing mark: Before and After. And though it’s a bleak thing to admit all these years later, still I’ve never me anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.
I struggled with this book. Unlike the many rave reviews I’ve seen for this book, there were a few times I almost put this book down. To be dramatic, it felt a little like trudging with Sam and Frodo through the depths of Mordor.
I stayed with this book for two reasons, and in the end it didn’t let me down. The first was that this book was consistently named one of the best books of 2013, and most of the blog reviews I’ve read loved it. Like, drooled all over it. This book is nominated for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize Longlist, and is also featured in the Morning News Tournament of Books.
More important is reason #2, my love for Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. The Secret History isn’t the most literary read in the world, but it is one of my very-favorite novels, with one of the most memorable sets of characters I’ve ever read. Tartt has only written three books and I was disappointed and unmoved by her second, The Little Friend. But this book has a Secret History-ness about it. It’s just … bigger… than other books. Darker. There’s a similar sense of “I hate these people but I have to know what they do next.” A sense that you come to know these characters more than you know the real people in your life. Scenes and images you see in your mind with perfect clarity, and remember long after you put it down.
This book is much more ambitious than The Secret History, and more thoughtful in its scope. At its heart, this book is about the very nature of art. Can a work of art, or an antique, reach out to you and grab you? Can it change your life? Can it be replicated, without losing what makes it great? Who should benefit from great art? And can we know it when we see it?
When I started this book, I couldn’t put it down. The story of Theo and his mother grabbed me and shook me. I felt like I knew them. There was a morning where the train was pulling into my station at work, and for a moment the real world seemed less meaningful. How could I just go on with my day when Theo’s mom is gone?
But Theo’s life goes on, and so does the story. At times, especially in a lot of the scenes between Boris and Theo, it felt like the book needed editing. I felt like I was reading the same things over and over again. I liked Boris as a character, I just got more detail than I needed. The book got really slow at times, and then picked up, and then got really slow again.
The challenge in this book is I felt desperately sympathetic towards Theo as a child, but as he aged I liked him less and less. I don’t have to LIKE a main character but Theo is so selfish, so morally challenged, I wasn’t sure I wanted to give him such a large chunk of my time. Tartt digs a hole for Theo that feels like he’ll never climb out, and I started to feel like I was right in there with him.
Still, there is so much in this book that’s worth reading. Do I buy the idea that a work of art can really grab a person? My mother (an artist) would say yes. For me, art is more about remembering times and places, like seeing the Moulin Rouge in Paris or the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland. I know I’m drawn to some art more than others, and I can’t tell you why. But I don’t think I can identify quality, I just know what resonates, and I also know that changes throughout my life.
I’m more interested in the issue of access to great art… if more people can be moved by a Renoir print in a book, or a musical on television, isn’t that a good thing? Most of us aren’t going to see original works of Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris. Most kids don’t even get to see art in museums. Theo’s mom is inspired by a picture in a book, which reminded me of the diner scene in Pleasantville – maybe opening a book and seeing a picture can be that powerful. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s the real thing.
I’ll add that the idea of a little bird chained to a table grabs me more than whether the brushstrokes or lighting changed the art world. That sad little bird followed me throughout the book, and reminded me of sad little birds seen as a child. For some reason there seems nothing sadder to me than a bird that can’t fly. Which is where you see Tartt’s brilliance, because this sad little bird becomes the perfect – but not overwhelming – symbol of this book.
So in the end, despite the length and repetitiveness, I definitely recommend this book.