I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of The Goldfinch. Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014, I’d read a few not-so-positive reviews of it, one even claiming that it was the most un-finish-able book of last year, and to be honest that wouldn’t have been that surprising as it is a huge door-stop of a novel, running to 864 pages! So I approached it with caution, half-expecting that I would give up with it half way through. This was not the case. While definitely a lengthy novel and perhaps with a few slow chapters, I thought it was a brilliant page-turner which drew me in with increasing intensity towards the end.
The novel begins with Theodore Decker, alone in a hotel room in Amsterdam, too afraid to leave and anxiously poring over Dutch newspapers hoping his name won’t appear. After this ominous start, the novel swiftly jumps back fourteen years to the day that Theo lost his mother in a bomb explosion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Following this tragic accident we witness Theo’s attempts to come to terms with his loss as he grows up into his adult self, with many other misfortunes and bad decisions along the way. He lives first with the wealthy parents of his school friend, Andy, then with his alcoholic and gambling father in Las Vegas, and lastly with Hobie, a friend made through the connection with the museum explosion, back in New York. A constant thread throughout the weaving storyline is Theo’s obsession with ‘The Goldfinch’ painting that he inadvertently stole from the museum in the confusion of the explosion. Its connection to his mother and Welty, the man who shares his last moments with Theo in the wreckage of the museum, prevents Theo from returning the painting when he should and eventually draws him into the criminal underworld of art theft.
We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even though we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are… there’s no truth beyond illusion.
Theo’s adolescent years with Andy’s family, the Barbour’s, and those with his father reflect an examination of a young boy trying to cope with his grief and the ease with which things can slide out of control. There are some beautifully descriptive and arresting passages too, such as when Theo arrives in the desolate desert landscape of Vegas.
Out of a large and beautifully crafted cast of characters, Boris, a Ukrainian kid that Theo meets at his school in Vegas, is one of my favourites – he’s definitely a ‘bad influence’ but their close friendship is touching. The boys are united in their experience of loss and abandonment, and find understanding in one another. For me, Boris also provides much of the humour in the novel, as well as a down-to earth humility that is a counterpoint to his more mischievous and criminal exploits.
The novel is particularly gripping in the last quarter; with a couple of hundred pages left to go you wonder how on earth this is going to work out. The story transforms into something much more suspenseful and there are several unforeseeable (if a little implausible) twists and turns to the story. – maybe it was just the shared setting in Amsterdam but it strongly reminded me the thrilling denouement of John Irving’s A Widow For One Year.
This novel is a brilliant example of story-telling at its best. Emotive and compelling, with superb plot and character, The Goldfinch is a must-read.