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Book 117: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Book 117: The Goldfinch.
Author: Donna Tartt, 2013.
Genre: Coming of Age. Contemporary. Literary. Art. Drugs.
Other Details: Hardback. 771 pages.

The Goldfinch is a coming of age novel, its protagonist and narrator is Theo Decker, who relates the story in retrospect. This is a novel that is impossible to summarize without giving away plot points and therefore for those who prefer not to know I shall place under cut. The novel opens when Theo is 13 and living with his bohemian mother in New York City. He and his mother duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to avoid a sudden rainstorm and visit an exhibition of Old Flemish Masters. His mother talks to him about The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. It is one of the few works that survived when an explosion rocked the city of Delft in 1654, killing many including Fabritius. Theo wanders off and then there is an explosion, caused by a terrorist bomb. Dazed and confused, Theo finds himself close to a badly injured old man, who asks him to take his ring and deliver it to a place called Hobart and Blackwell . He also urges Theo to take the Fabritius painting, which is lying unguarded and outside of its frame. Eventually Theo makes his way outside and learns that his mother has been killed.

As his deadbeat father had abandoned the family some years before, Theo is taken in by the wealthy family of a school friend. Almost unconsciously Theo does not tell anyone about the painting and clings to it as a reminder of his mother and it becomes a powerful symbol of his grief. He returns the ring to what turns out to be an antique store and is befriended by Hobie, the partner of the old man who had also died in the museum explosion. Theo's story continues through a number of stages. His gambler father returns and takes him to Las Vegas where he befriends Boris, a Russian-Polish boy, who nicknames Theo 'Potter'. The boys get into all kinds of trouble. Later, Theo returns to New York and resumes his friendship with Hobie and becomes involved first with the antique trade and later is drawn into the underworld of art crime.

As a former student of art history, the premise of this novel had me from the opening. Although a long novel I felt very caught up in Donna Tartt's writing and found it thought-provoking, intelligent and sophisticated. It had a strong plot with very memorable characters and at times I found it hard to put down. I felt that it is a novel almost guaranteed to be hailed a modern classic and Tartt winning the 2014 The Pulitzer Prize confirms this. Some critics have described the novel as Dickensian with nods to works such as Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Tartt also utilising a broad canvas of contemporary life yet relates a very focused, personal journey. She also employs the type of coincidences that pepper Dickens' work.

One question that lingered was when is the novel set? Donna Tartt avoids dates though references to an iPhone early on suggests that Theo's story opened somewhere post 2007 and then moves into the near future as he enters adulthood. This was my favourite of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction short-list and was the favourite though lost to the highly experimental A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In contrast to that novel The Goldfinch is a very traditional novel in structure while still dealing with themes of guilt, grief and loss. As a side note there is a great deal of drug use in the novel.

I was amazed to discover after reading the novel that 'The Goldfinch' had been on loan in late 2013 to a New York Art Museum, an event that could not have been planned given that Tartt obviously worked on the novel for years. Just an interesting coincidence and a treat for New Yorkers and visitors who are fans of the novel.

Overall, I loved it and found it a rich experience. Certainly a little messy in parts but this added to its appeal for me. As I've enjoyed Donna Tartt's other two novels this confirmed her status for me.
Tags: art, bildungsroman/coming of age, contemporary, drugs, literary, pulitzer winner

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