Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

So I often choose books by their covers. As an avid reader, I know this doesn't always mean quality, but a cover can tell you a lot about the book. In the case of The Goldfinch, this is especially true, as the story evolves around a painting called "the Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius.

The novel begins with the end. Theo Decker, our protagonist (?) is in a hotel room in Amsterdam, terrified because he has murdered someone and he believes the world is after him. He lets us know that his life so far has been a downward spiral since the passing of his mother. In fact, his mother's untimely death set all the events that lead him to this moment into play.

We then return to the story of Theo's mother's death. Despite being naturally smart, Theo is in trouble at school, and Theo's mother has been called in for a meeting. On their way there, they decide to stop by a New York Museum, and Theo's mother shows him her favourite paintings, "The Goldfinch" numbering amongst them. Before they leave, Theo's mother goes to have a last look at one of the other paintings, leaving Theo behind in a room with an old man and his beautiful granddaughter or niece. Theo has been looking at her, wondering at her story, when the bomb goes off and chaos enters his life.

In the aftermath of the blast, Theo finds himself holding the old man's hand as he breathes his last breaths. The man is rambling, telling him to take the painting, pointing at the little "Goldfinch". The old man gives Theo his ring, rambles on incoherently, and then is no more. Unable to find his mother, or the girl, Theo leaves with the painting in his bag, to return home in the hopes of finding his mother there.

Theo's mother is dead. As Theo's alcoholic father left them without a trace a year back, and Theo's grandparents claim ill health, Theo ends up living with his friend Andy and his family for a while. Andy is an awkward child in an upperclass family. His siblings detest Theo and the attention he attracts from their parents. Andy's mother is constantly preoccupied with fundraisers and luncheons, whereas the Wall Street father is battling with his mental issues. Theo manages to trace the old man who died in front of his eyes to an antique shop across town. He brings the ring and finds a warm welcome from Hobie, the dead man's business partner, and the old man's niece Pippa, who suffered severe trauma in the bombing. Theo starts visiting them on a regular basis, before Pippa, who already is the love of his life, is taken away by an aunt and sent abroad. But before Theo can get too comfortable in this new life, his father makes a reappearance and brings him to live with him and his girlfriend in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas proves to be nothing like New York. Theo's father rarely have the temper tantrums he did back home, and money seems not to be an issue. Theo befriends the Russian kid Boris, and they literally hang out day and night. Helping themselves to Boris' dad's vodka, they soon spend every afternoon in a drunken stupor, talking about life and love. "The Goldfinch" has been with Theo the whole time, but it's wrapped up nicely to prevent anyone finding it and understanding what it is. Not even Boris knows about it.

Despite the father's seeming change of behaviour, Theo realizes that he might be involved with some dodgy stuff. When the dad is killed in a car accident, Theo refuses to wait and see what child services decide to do with him, and he takes his dog and the painting and jumps on the first bus back to New York. With nowhere else to go, he once again turns to Hobie in the antique shop, and starts building his life from there.

A few years later we meet the 26-year old Theo who now is running the antique store while Hobie does his refurbishments in his workshop. We learn that Theo has been doing some dirty deals, selling fakes as real, and so forth, to prevent the shop from going bankrupt. He is now in trouble because one of the people he tricked is onto him and refuses to be appeased. "The Goldfinch" has been locked away in a safety deposit box since Theo came to New York, and hasn't been looked at. Theo is also addicted to prescription painkillers. One day Theo runs in to Andy's brother on the streets, and to his surprise, the brother is overjoyed to see him. Bad times have befallen his family. Andy is dead, and Theo starts spending time with the family again. He is soon dating Kitsey, the daughter of the house, and before Theo knows it, they're engaged. But Theo is still in love with the ever distant Pippa, and it turns out Kitsey also has a love she's been unable to let go of. When Theo runs into Boris on the street one day, Theo's life is about to change yet again.

Ah, this is a book full of surprises. New York is painted vividly and comes to life in your head. The characters are complex and ever shifting. The prose is beautiful, the plot surprising, the pace keeps you wanting to read more. At the beginning of the book I wasn't sure if Theo would turn out to be a real arsehole, or if he would be sympathetic. As I read on I liked him more and more. But it's nice for a change to not have a flawless protagonist. Boris is also a breath of fresh air, and tells us his view on right and wrong, that sometimes wrong things can lead to the right thing.

This novel is big, powerful, gripping, full of life. It must be read.

1 comment:

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Glides effortlessly down a twisted road. Glad I had four days to devote to nothing but reading because I could not put this book down except for a few breaks.