RAD Book Club review: The Goldfinch

24 May 2018

RAD Book Club’s latest read was The Goldfinch, an award-winning coming-of-age novel by writer Donna Tartt, which follows Theo Decker’s fortune across America as he grows into adulthood while coping with grief and longing. Eight of us met on Tuesday to discuss our thoughts.

After his mother is killed during a terrorist attack in a New York museum, the life of thirteen-year-old Theo descends into confusion and grief. He encounters an old man who tells him to remove from the museum ‘The Goldfinch’, (a real painting by Carel Fabritius in the Mauritshuis collection, in The Hague). From that moment on, the reader witnesses many shifts and turns in Theo’s life. Sent to stay with his father in Las Vegas he becomes friends with Boris, with whom he indulges in drugs, alcohol and crime. After a year, Theo returns to New York, enrols in college, finds a job and gets engaged but continues to make reckless choices which result in threats, blackmails, disappointments and betrayals. The action takes Theo to Amsterdam, back to New York and then around the world, where he makes efforts to rectify the wrongs he has done.

The majority of Book Club members enjoyed the novel. A few found the reading of an 880-page book quite daunting and most of us experienced a dip in interest at different points. Most enjoyed the writing style and the way the characters – Boris for instance – and situations were presented with realistic psychological detail, like the scene in which Theo returns to school after the attack in the museum. Some found the writing overly descriptive without adding much to the plot and others said these descriptions were precisely what they enjoyed the most and at least two people said the book didn’t feel long at all.

When discussing the characters we were torn between being annoyed at Theo’s actions and finding them plausible given his particular circumstances and quite realistic as experiences. The vivid and engaging nature of some of the characters actually helped shape the image of Theo, who for the most part, does not explain his questionable decisions, seeming as though he isn’t responsible for his own actions. We thought that his lack of personality and morality might account for his easiness in changing and adapting to different social setting and in his ability to please all sorts of people.

Overall, we understood the book to be a coming-of-age novel because the transition from child to adult is the central theme. Theo has to learn to be independent while still a child, and his character formation depends on having to deal with issues regarding grief, separation and death without the benefit of stable role-models. As an adult his choices continue to be ill-thought out, and his maturation does not come until the end of the book. The evolution of his personality develops between extremes of introspection, love and appreciation of beauty and that of action, crime, addiction and self-destruction. The motif of the painting, and the circumstances of its survival are a metaphor of this: the painting survived an explosion (both in reality and in the story), the imprisoned bird of the painting is Theo, unable to free himself from the consequences of his mother’s death and the chain which tethers the bird reminded us of an umbilical cord, still tying him to his mother, the same way the painting is a link to his last moments with his mother.

Opinions varied regarding the ending. We felt that in contrast to the rest of the novel’s slow build up the action felt rushed towards the end. No-one was satisfied by Tartt’s philosophical address to the reader in the final paragraphs – it is an unnecessary justification or summary of the novel’s intention, feeling like the author’s voice, rather than Theo’s.