The Goldfinch, the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction (it won, in the judges’ own words, because of how it “stimulates the brain and touches the heart”) remains steadfast on bestselling shelves and at the top of contemporary must-read lists.
However, high-brow literary circles have remarked after reading the 771-page volume, “Doesn’t anybody care about how something is written anymore?” (Francine Prose, The New York Times), while critic James Wood snubbed it “children’s literature”.
(In a similar fashion The Saturday Review named F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby ‘absurd’, once.)
The literary critics might be divided into camps that term it either clichéd ‘Harry Potter fiction’ or praise the book’s links to art culture. For me, when I first finished The Goldfinch, I realised that I hadn’t found a book so heart-warming, compelling and sensitively written in ages; every time I go back to it, I find another quote I like.
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
The novel opens with our protagonist Theo Decker in New York City, where he lives with his artistic and free-spirited mother, a charismatic heroine whose brightness runs through the story without even being alive for most of it. Her death early into the book soaks the following pages with the feeling that a life could have been so much more than this, than what he is left with. (Theo describes the date of this day as sticking up on the calendar like a ‘rusty nail’.) Theo as a narrator paints images of humans and places fleetingly, suiting his changeable moods, and as his personality is quite unassuming and reserved, I found his character really likeable.
The man Theo turns into seems like a lost boy, only half-alive in the present as he makes brazen decisions and careless mistakes that trip him further into the criminal art-world, armed with a stolen painting of a goldfinch. The setting of a barren Las Vegas suits the tone of the novel as he longs desperately for New York, not the careless upbringing he receives from his untrustworthy, reckless father.
The character I found the most frustratingly likeable was the Russian rogue Boris, whose devilish nature is the light in the darkness of Theo’s teenage years with ridiculous escapades, a completely immoral attitude and his mostly illegal activities playing a huge part of his influence over his friend’s life. Somehow, as if to make up for his habit of getting Theo into so much trouble, a wise mentality slots into his personality too.
“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.”
Theo as an adult seems to make the same mistakes, not far from that same person who lay awake comforting himself with memories of a New York antique-shop at night – Donna Tartt wrote such an astoundingly beautiful portrait of how it feels to be homesick whilst being at home, of how it feels to have lost such a maternal presence that Theo’s own self vanishes too. His longing for the girl he fell in love with at first sight is painful to read yet unflinchingly honest, and I was really moved by how their similar flaws and emotional wounds cannot quite join up.
The Goldfinch remains my favourite because of how often it made me laugh and well up, mainly because of how easy it is to care about its deeply flawed and lovable characters. The ending, as Theo adds to “the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire” – describes just the same frustration I felt at the languid pace of the characters. I felt mixed about how Theo let his life roll by, picking up parts other people had discarded or left behind, treating everything as though the natural order of things should be left alone – and then it became clear during his epiphany at the end, that that was just what his story of loss was advising against.
“But when I think of you, it’s as if you’ve gone away to sea on a ship—out in a foreign brightness where there are no paths, only stars and sky.”
5/5 cups of tea