Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/25/2014

Dutch artist Carel Fabritius died in 1654 when a Delft gunpowder magazine exploded, destroying his studio (as well as a quarter of the city), along with most of his paintings. He was a pupil of Rembrandt and much appreciated in his day. However, his name is mostly lost to history because so few of his works survive. One of them, a smallish painting called "The Goldfinch," hanging in New York's Museum of Modern Art, nearly suffers the same fate when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing a number of patrons.

Visiting the museum that day is 13-year-old Theo Decker. He and his mother are passing time until a meeting at the school where Theo may be suspended. Because of the reason they were there, Theo blames himself for his mother's death in the explosion. If he hadn't been ill-behaved, they wouldn't have been there, ergo, his mother would still be alive.

Something else interesting happened to Theo that day. He was smitten by a red-headed girl of about his age, and had been trailing her around the museum, watching the way she interacted with her grandfather. He was supposed to meet his mother in the gift shop, but his fascination with Pippa saved his life. He attends to the grandfather's final moments, and is bestowed with a gift—the man's ring—vague instructions about what to do with it, and orders to save "The Goldfinch." Theo spirits the painting out of the museum.

The explosion and its origins are incidental to the tale. It is simply is a catalytic event, one that sends Theo's life in a new trajectory. His father abandoned the family nearly a year earlier, so he is now effectively orphaned. His friend Andy's family takes him in for a while (there's always a threat that his hateful grandparents might take him away, but that never comes to pass), but just when it's starting to look like the arrangement with the somewhat dysfunctional Barbours might become permanent, his father reappears, girlfriend in tow, ready to clear out the apartment, sell off his mother's belongings, and take him with them back to Las Vegas.

Theo still has "The Goldfinch," and his biggest worry is that he will either lose this priceless painting or that his father will discover it and dispose of it. Time and time again he has thought about ways to return it, especially after it shows up on a watch list of missing artwork, but he can never quite follow through. He does return the heirloom ring to the dead grandfather's business partner, Hobie, an antique furniture restorer, and eventually meets up with Pippa again, but their intense relationship, born out of catastrophe, can never quite fulfill its promise.

The rest of Theo's early years is a tale straight out of Dickens, told at Dickensian length and in Dickensian detail. He's David Copperfield crossed with Oliver Twist, and the Ukranian named Boris who becomes his partner in crime during his time in Las Vegas is his Artful Dodger, a colorful and amusing (and sometimes frustrating) character who pops into and out of Theo's life in the ensuing years. Adults are often absent or neglectful, especially Boris's father, who is rarely seen and greatly to be feared during his few appearances. Theo's father is a veteran gambler who flies high when he's winning, but in Vegas the house always wins. Xandra, his father's girlfriend, the woman for whom he left Theo's mother, tries to be maternal, but it isn't in her. 

Much of Theo's adolescence is colored by excessive booze and a variety of drugs, a habit that carries with him into adulthood. The story follows nearly a decade of his life, leading from one caper to the next, from one disaster to the next, from one escape to the next, inevitably returning to the Amsterdam hotel room where Theo, now a young adult, is introduced in the book's opening pages. By this point, it's clear that something has gone terribly wrong, but it takes Tartt a long time—and many of the book's nearly 800 pages—to get there.

However, the heft of the book is not a problem. The narrative moves relentlessly forward (though not always chronologically), and Theo is a charming and beguiling first person narrator. He's a rascal, sometimes drug-addled, who makes many bad choices in his life, but he almost always seems to get away mostly unscathed. Since the book is his adult retelling of events, his young boy perceptions are imbued with everything he has learned (especially about art) over the years, which can make him seem somewhat precocious. Along the way, several people are kind to him, including Hobie, who essentially adopts him when he returns to New York from Las Vegas. Theo manages to save the financially rickety antique shop, but his methods are another in a long line of ill-advised decisions. Just as the house always wins in Vegas, the world usually wins out as well, and the lies and cons and betrayals begin to catch up with him, building up a head of steam that he can barely outrun. 

Lurking in the background, there's always "The Goldfinch." Theo knows enough about art preservation to keep the painting from being exposed to unfavorable conditions, so he rarely actually sees it, but it seems to take on a life of its own. Rumors abound as to its location, and his worst fears are borne out when a crook puts two and two together and begins to put the strong arm on Theo and his checkered past.

Though there are long passages where little happens, somewhat bogged down by the intricate details of art restoration, once all hell breaks loose in Amsterdam, things happen so fast that the narrative becomes confused and confusing. Theo is no longer in charge of his destiny, but was he ever? As the major plot points are resolved, he looks back on his short life to this point and muses philosophically about the turning points when things might have been different. Granted, not all of these pivotal moments were the result of his own actions—he had no hand in the bombing, for example—it leads him to wonder about the nature of the universe. The goldfinch in the painting is as large as life, more realistic than most depictions from its era, but it is chained to its perch, a prisoner of fate. Is it proud and defiant in its captivity? Or is it merely making do in its limited existence as best as it can?

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2014. All rights reserved.