The Goldfinch: A Novel | Donna Tartt | 771 pages | 2015
In this winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Tartt delivers a brilliant rendering of the life of a boy scarred indelibly by violence early in his life. Theo Decker accompanies his mother- the center of his life owing to a drunken, absent father- on a walk home through their New York neighborhood. When a freak rainstorm forces them inside, they find themselves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a favorite of Theo’s mother. Mother and son become separated, and next, a terrible act of terrorism strikes the museum.
His mother dead, Theo embarks on a heartbreaking early childhood. In depicting Theo’s experiences as he bounces from one unstable situation to another, Tartt begins to reveal to the reader the severe psychological damage the loss of his mother has created. As Theo moves through young adulthood and makes mistake after mistake, he becomes to the reader less and less likeable, yet remains entirely compelling. It’s a high-wire act for an author to make the central character of a story so [ultimately] unlikeable, especially when he is the narrator, but Tartt manages to undergird all of Theo’s shortcomings with a tension palpable to the reader: this could have happened to me; what would I be like?
In sum, the book is an affecting- if a bit laborious at 750+ pages- deliberation on the role that loss, family and chance plays in our everyday existence. The Goldfinch is a brilliant discourse on the frailty of the human condition; that Tartt manages to be as effective as she is here without the crutch of unrealistic plot twists and debased character developments- the book is, on balance, full of average people doing very average things- is a remarkable achievement. The effort calls to mind the work of Matthew Thomas in last year’s dazzling We Are Not Ourselves.