The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Book report #15 (2020)

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Pub 2013.

I’ve had this book for a while now, a recommendation from a friend. It has been avoided due to its size – >700 pages – and that it is a “check-out” book (as in, one that I frequently see amongst the pulp fiction collections at the grocery store). While sometimes there are hidden gems in there (like this favourite from high school day), often they’re not. But I heard that The Goldfinch had been made into a movie, and since that is a category on the list, I dove in.

Ugh. I’m sorry that I did. I should have left it mouldering in the pile. The story should have been interesting and engaging, with lots of dramatic potential. A terrorist bombing at a New York museum kills Theo’s mother (Theo is the main character) but leaves him mostly unharmed physically. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Theo is directed by a dying man to pick-up a nearby painting, the titular Goldfinch. In his confusion after the explosion, he takes the painting home and hides it. Thus follows his lifelong relationship with the painting, through his short-lived time with his father (who also dies) and his subsequent life with the partner of the dying man – a saviour who he subsequently treats appallingly. Eventually, through an unbelievable escapade to recover it from thieves, the painting is returned to the art authorities and to public view. In between taking the painting and its return, Theo leads a dishonest, dissolute, barely defensible life. He steals from, lies to, and betrays everyone who loves and believes him, and in the end make a half-hearted attempt at redemption, more because he has to than because he realizes the error of his ways.

The reason the book is so long is because the author takes a tremendous amount of time to make a point. Pages and pages of rambling about a location or a situation, in not very poetic or creative language, had me flipping ahead several times to see how long it was going to go on.

The characters were also terrible. You know how sometimes we deride a male author who gets female characters all wrong? Well, the same derision applies to this female author. Most of the characters are male, but regardless they are all either overblown caricatures or shallow and tepid. Worst is Theo. He is a vain, dissolute, inconsiderate asshole, completely unlikable and unsympathetic. If his drug-infused mistreatment of everyone around him and his astonishingly poor judgment was even loosely connected to the loss of his mother or the trauma of the explosion, it would be somewhat understandable. But it is not. He’s ultimately an ungrateful, dishonest (even with the reader) idiot.

The only somewhat redeeming piece, comes very near the end, as Theo and Hobey discuss objects and art and why they mean so much to people, and these come very close to my own thoughts about the importance of objects:

“Idolatry – caring too much for objects  – can destroy you. Only, if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it. And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty.”

And ultimately it is the lack of feeling for the characters that made me dislike this book. I feel a bit on the outside on this, as the book was well reviewed and received a Pulitzer Prize, so perhaps I missed something. Despite not enjoying it, I stuck with it to the end expecting to see or feel what the critics promised. But alas, it was not there. 700+ pages I’ll never get back.

Fate: charity shop or little book library on the corner, whichever is faster.

7 – a book with a female author
8 – a book that has been made into a film (which did poorly so perhaps my assessment is not off the mark)
15 – a book with a colour in the title
24 – a new author to me

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