My Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Our secrets define us, says Donna Tartt.

Mine being that I’m likely one of the last people in the world to read The Goldfinch—arguably the magnum opus of Tartt’s career, winning her the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2014. 

Tartt is an existentialist and an art enthusiast, fascinated by manipulation, by nihilism and by addiction—and I wish she did more showing than telling of this. What Jonathan Franzen captured so flawlessly in Freedom through his characters in their actions and thoughts, Tartt spells out and overexplains in countless lengthy forced monologues. 

Although the plot itself is about an extraordinary (and more than a little unbelievable) life, the human experience of the main character Theo Decker is nothing if not widely applicable. What do we learn after 700+ pages and a Kindle-projected reading time of circa 20 hours? Every closed door is a window of opportunity. Every ending is a new beginning. Have faith in the abundance of our universe. Let life flow. Don’t hold on to things that don’t want to be held. More moving experiences than you can imagine await you. And above all, life is meaningless. 

I enjoyed following Theo as he grew up, and seeing how experiences, influences and people make him into the man we know at the end of the novel. As in many other aspects of the book, I could have done without Tartt’s constant overexplaining of how Theo is changing, her debate on whether or not he is a “bad” person, and her questioning of whether we truly get to choose who we are. Show, not tell.

While the plot was forced, contrived and convenient, the dialogue and interactions between the characters were anything but. Tartt also excels at writing cities—I am with Theo in the dirty, crowded streets of New York, under the expansive skies and neon lights of Vegas, and in the winding streets of Amsterdam at Christmastime.

The one thing I thought Tartt wrote poignantly without spoiling with her constant overexplaining was the presence of absence. How absence can be as tangible as presence.

Props to Tartt for getting me to read up on all sorts of classical and Old Hollywood references. 

Favourite quotes:

- Objective value… was meaningless… An object… was worth whatever you could get somebody to pay for it.
- One drink is too many and a thousand’s not enough.
- We are so accustomed to disguising ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.
- I dreamed of her constantly, only as absence, not presence. 
- We have art in order not to die from the truth. 
- For in the deepest, most unshakable part of myself reason was useless.
- All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different.
- It’s rough to be in love with the wrong person.
- It was better never to have been born—never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.
- It was a game to size up a customer and figure out the image they wanted to project—not so much the people they were (know-it-all decorator? New Jersey housewife? self-conscious gay man?) as the people they wanted to be… The trick was to address yourself to the projection, the fantasy self—the connoisseur, the discerning bon vivant—as opposed to the insecure person actually standing in front of you.
- You love her… but not too much… Which means your soul is not too mixed up with hers… Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to live and be happy in this world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.
- A careless power like the eyes of a kitten.