Towards the middle of my trip, when I got to the section that involved long train/bus rides, I decided to dip into this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I had preordered it back in the week’s before its release, slightly before the book’s buzz had reached epic proportions. Then the buzz continued, and I had a feeling it would win the Pulitzer even though I still hadn’t read it. And then the backlash started: Real™ critics found the book clichéd, and many disdainfully referred to it as a children’s book. Tartt’s treatment of people of color was all wrong. Readers came out of the woodwork to speak up with relief to discover they weren’t the only ones who hated the book. I tentatively skimmed over all of this — the positive buzz, the negative buzz, even descriptions of the book itself — so that I could eventually read the book with fresh eyes, but so much of it was hard to ignore.
The Goldfinch is about thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and a split decision he makes that will shape his future. On one fateful morning, he and his mother pop into The Met to look at a new exhibit, but a bomb goes off and his mother dies in the terrorist attack. By some miracle Theo survives, and in the gory confusion that ensues, he rescues a painting from the ashes — Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” which his mother adored — and stumbles back home (in shock and concussed) to wait for her. She never arrives, and when child services discovers that Theo is on his own without any other family to take him in, he’s temporarily placed with the Barbours, a wealthy couple on Park Avenue whose son Theo once went to school with. Because of something that happened in the moments following the explosion, he also comes to know a kindly and distinguished antique furniture restorer. Neither of them know it at the time, but the man will come to play a huge role in Theo’s future.
The book jumps back and forth in time, and much of the drama revolves around Theo as an an adult who struggles with addiction, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt, as well as guilt over taking “The Goldfinch.” The more that time went by, the more he knew that his window for returning the painting without severe consequences had closed. His fear is compounded by the highly-publicized discovery of other pieces of art that had been stolen during the terrorist attack. Now that those other painting have been discovered, Theo is anxious about a renewed search commencing for “The Goldfinch,” which he keeps wrapped and hidden in a climate-controlled storage facility.
Up to this point, I loved the book. It’s ambitious and long-winded, but I was completely absorbed in Theo’s new reality. Other things happen; without the stability his mother had always given him, his early teen years are marked by upheaval and sadness. He makes a friend who truly seems to understand him, a boy named Boris with a strife-filled Eastern European upbringing and alcoholic father, but even that friendship gets put on hold because of the upheaval in Theo’s young life.
But a little past the book’s halfway point, the book takes an implausible turn that I just cannot sign off on. I won’t go into much detail, but I will say that it involves a trip to the seedier side of Amsterdam, international cartels, and of course, “The Goldfinch.” With all due respect to Joy Castro’s take on how the book portrayed people of color — which I agree with to an extent, although I mostly found people of color rendered invisible (something I had already anticipated given the book’s wealthy art world backdrop) — it is in this last half of the book where I found (mostly Soviet) stereotypes to abound.
This latter half is what ultimately diminished the book for me. I still liked it, and I still enjoyed Tartt’s writing, but the zany plot twist was just too much compared to the carefully drawn-out first half.
The Goldfinch was released in October 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. The book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for a number of other awards.