The Goldfinch has been called Dickensian and the best literary novel of 2012, but the central art crime plot borrows more from Dan Brown and noir fiction. From Charles Dickens we get a lovable orphan sucked into a tough world of crime by larger than life characters. At 770 pages, Tartt's novel certainly has Dickensian heft. The slow 19th century pace, however, is oddly grafted to a page-turner final act. The art crime sections reminded me of The Da Vinci Code. There were shoot out scenes and genre gangsters, but Theo and Boris, his best friend and partner in crime, were well developed characters.
Tartt is a master of character:
"He was a planet without an atmosphere."
"He seemed disconnected and partly elsewhere, like an adult in the room with small children."And a master of atmosphere. Read out loud and listen to the poetic rhythm:
"Darkness. Under the foggy corona of the street lamps, park benches slick with rain, drip drip drip, trees sodden and black."
"Down narrow streets we wandered, damp alleys too narrow for cars, foggy little ochreous shops filled with old prints and dusty porcelains. Canal footbridge: brown water, lonely brown duck. Plastic cup half-submerged and bobbing."
Although the first half of the book follows Theo from ages 13 to 15, The Goldfinch is not a young adult novel. Teen alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, shop lifting, child abuse, neglect and malnutrition seem only to build character with few consequences or mental impairments. Bad choices lead to worse choices.
The Goldfinch is disturbing, but it makes you think. As soon as I finished, I flipped back to reread the finale. Everything came together so well, without too much resolution. Finally we got the introspection and learning missing from the earlier chapters.
Although I was gripped by the narrative, The Goldfinch isn't a book I'd recommend to everyone, especially impressionable young readers. I preferred Tartt's debut novel, A Secret History, which had tighter writing and wasn't so relentlessly dark. Her engaging books are well worth reading for their wonderful characters, evocative atmospheres and intellectual depth. The Goldfinch has been on the NYT bestseller list since its October release and is a big hit in the Netherlands too. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your reaction.
Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought a hardcover copy from Gulf of Maine Books without compensation. It was too heavy for travel so I also bought the ebook to finish in England. By coincidence, an exhibit of Dutch masters at the Frick, including the Goldfinch, opened on the book's release date and is up until January 19, 2014. I tried to see it when I was last in NYC, but the lines were too long.
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