I knew it from the first page, this was the rare sort of book that you want to go on forever and when you finish it you want to start reading all over again for the first time. My only problem? It’s size: difficult balancing the hardback on my chest as I tried to read in bed while gently falling asleep. This is a book I will keep and re-read and re-read. Buy the book, not the e-book.
Three main reasons why I loved it. I liked Theo, it is his story and Tartt lets him tell it all the way through. No other viewpoint. It is about art and antiques, or specifically one painting and the effect it has on Theo’s life. The possession of it, the responsibility, the guilt, the value. The meaning of the painting itself, the tiny bird shackled by a chain at its ankle. And the painter, Carel Fabritius, student of Rembrandt, died too young in the Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 when he was 32. And lastly, it’s one of those wide-ranging American novels – New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam – that the Americans seem to do so well and the English are rubbish at [if you can think of a modern English novel that does do it, please let me know because I’d love to read it]. Tartt says she carries a notebook everywhere and is always jotting down ideas and facts. It shows. Each page is crammed with information. I have to admit early on I was wondering if 13-year old Theo would really remember details of a painter called Egbert van de Poel, but it is the adult Theo telling the child’s story so I cut her some slack.
It is about art, fate, the things life throws at us, love and friendship. It takes in alcoholism, drug addiction, art fraud, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, unrequited love. At the heart of it is a mystery. As Theo’s feckless father, who gambles according to astrology, says: “sometimes you have to lose to win”. And it is chock full with popular references, from Boris referring to reading the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ books to Pippa’s Hunter wellies.
Of the peripheral characters, I loved Hobie, loved Boris. Pippa remains enigmatic to the end. Tartt’s characters are alive, her places are real. She makes you smell the dust. I’ve been to Las Vegas and have ventured beyond the Strip, but not to the outer edges where the desert reclaims the streets and where the teenage Theo and Boris meet. And I’ve been to New York, walked the streets Theo walks, been to the Met [thank goodness, un-bombed], and been to Amsterdam too with its circular canals. And that brings me to the first chapter, and the ending. I was so intrigued by that first chapter, why is Theo in the hotel room, anxiously scanning the Dutch television news. What has he done? What I imagined it to be… I was wrong, but I had to read almost to the end before I realised I was wrong. That’s really good going for a book that is 771 pages long. There is anticipation, numerous twists in the tale, and there is a little over-intellectualising [often the over-serious way of ‘the big American novel’] but nothing that stopped me reading on. For me, the book went on slightly too long, past its natural finishing point. I would have stopped at the end of the chapter where Theo and Hobie meet post-Christmas, post-Amsterdam.
It is a literary success, and a page-turner. A deserved winner of the Pulitzer, for me.But not everyone thinks The Goldfinch is a classic, according to this article from Vanity Fair magazine.
Click here to read a review in The Guardian which examines Tartt, the enigma.
Kirsty Wark interviews Donna Tartt about The Goldfinch on BBC’s Newsnight, click here to watch on You Tube. On writing, and working in New York’s Public Library, watching people walk by and inventing characters.
If you are in Den Haag, the Netherlands, be sure to see ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius at the Maritshuis. Click here for details.
Other books about paintings? The obvious one is Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same name. My mind goes blank after that – do you know any others?
‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt [Little, Brown]