The Goldfinch: not quite a masterpiece

Zoe Apostolides

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The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s third novel, takes its name from the painting by seventeenth-century Dutch painter Fabritius. Seen peeking out from beneath torn paper on the front cover and reprinted in the opening pages, ‘The Goldfinch’ serves as a prologue to the novel as well as a veritable character in the narrative that unfurls.

At the age of 13, Theo Decker spots the small artwork in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Theo’s grown-up self narrates the novel. He tells us, in these opening pages, that his mother is soon to be dead and Tartt builds the tension masterfully until the fateful bomb that takes her life explodes. It destroys the museum and virtually everything in it. Everything, that is, except for Theo and the painting. He grabs it and takes it back to his deserted flat; ears still ringing, he waits for his mother to return.

There’s a strong undercurrent of restlessness throughout. Like Richard Papen in Tartt’s bestselling first novel The Secret History, Theo is unknowable both to himself and to the reader. As he grows up, recurring thoughts of boating holidays with family friends in placid seas and raging storms add to the portrait of a marooned man, cut off so entirely from others that even in the bustling, crowded streets of New York (so richly, vividly painted) he is still alone. Indeed, Theo is left with nothing except the painting. Once enjoyed by the world, it is now feasted upon by one pair of greedy eyes.

Unlike her previous works, The Goldfinch is more discursive, the story suddenly taking on an entirely different mood and direction, making it tricky to navigate. There are problems: Theo’s worship of Pippa – a girl he first notices in the museum and who also survives the explosion – is stilted. Similarly, Theo’s eventual slide into drug-fuelled oblivion feels laboured and obvious.

Nevertheless, the one great voice booming throughout is that of ‘The Goldfinch’ itself. The sections dedicated to it make you want to take to the nearest gallery and dive into the work of the great masters. Tartt is at her best describing the light bouncing off oil canvases, the contours of brushstrokes, and that ‘hidden space’ between reality and image.

The Goldfinch is a gripping tale; the prose is lucid, poetic, and at times breathtaking. But at a hefty 700 pages, the characters become lost among the story’s many diversions. In the end, the novel never quite reaches the purity of expression embodied by the tiny Dutch painting that inspired it.

Zoe Apostolides is a journalist based in London.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is published by Little, Brown. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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