Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.


The Goldfinch is my favorite type of book—grappling with the Big Questions behind the curtain, telling a once-in-a-lifetime kind of story on stage. It’s epic, 771 pages to adore and to swaddle, to contemplate and to doubt, to believe and to not-believe.

It starts with a 13-year-old boy having his world destroyed and stealing a painting, the eponymous “Goldfinch,” that just might one day be able to rebuild his world. We follow this boy, Theo, on a decades-long odyssey of self-loathing and guilt and loss. He goes from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, crossing paths with the most charming, surprising characters. Boris, a Russian druggie who befriends Theo in Vegas, is my favorite. His dialogue—though all the dialogue really—is brilliant, mimicking real speech through the most clever punctuation use and filler words. Characters and plots weave in and out, forgotten and abandoned for hundreds of pages, but despite its meandering, never for one moment does the book feel slow or directionless. It thrums forward with realism and excitement.

Tartt talks a lot about what makes art meaningful. The same way she asks what a painting can mean to someone, she inspired me to ask what literature means to me. And so I think the best stories are born in time or out of it. The greats are either ruthlessly part and parcel of the era in which they were written (To Kill a MockingbirdThe Great Gatsby) or undated, belonging to everyone who came before they were written and everyone who comes after. The Goldfinch falls to the latter category: it’s absolutely timeless, about the questions we ask again and again, but never reductive.

How should we live our lives when they are meaningless and cruel, and random fate can strike us down at any moment? Once we’re old and battered enough to realize and accept this lack of meaning, what can we do? Go on quietly? Be destroyed by it? Or do we say screw it and decide to make our meaning?

For the bulk of the novel, these questions hum beneath the surface, omnipresent but addressed rarely and only with averted eyes. But at the masterful end, Tartt not only gives us a bloody action finale but pushes us toward answers that hovered there all along, in sight but out of reach. Theo’s ultimate ruminations are like a gospel, a message on how to live in an age where the old rules have been discovered as false, discarded but not yet replaced. I died a few deaths between these covers only to be saved every time by Theo, and behind him, Donna Tartt, a careful author, omnipotent in her awareness that her novel has no meaning beyond what she can try to say and her readers can try to grasp. Meaning is neither objective nor infinite. But it can endure for some time and it can find some people, and by it, these people will be momentarily, miraculously, saved. Sort of like I was, at 11pm last night, 750 pages deep, close to the end of The Goldfinch but not ready to close it.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

9549746Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption


Normally books like this don’t work. If a book features chapter specific POVs recounting very loosely related vignettes, I will politely choose to place it on the bottom of my to-read pile. In chopped narratives where characters are just barely stitched together, I care about no one. Reading for me has always been an exercise in empathy. Caring about characters—and I don’t mean loving them or rooting for them; I mean caring in the basest way: having some sort of feeling for them, giving some sort of fucks about them, even if it’s like I wish you’d die!—is paramount.

But A Visit from the Goon Squad is the perfect way to use my most-hated narrative strategy. Oftentimes in these split narrative stories, we get a grand finale of a final chapter where all the stories collide and some sort of profound singularity is attained. It always inspires an eyeroll. But here the final chapter isn’t a huge merry reunion between everyone whose story we’ve followed. Each character gets his or her vignette, and that’s mostly it. Vignettes and characters are expertly chosen, because Egan produces a specific, desired effect in each vignette that eventually reinforces the entire thematic tableau.

In school when I studied Literature, I was often forced to name the theme of the story. Definite article “the” definitely deserved because my teachers behaved as if there was ONE theme, ONE answer, ONE profound life secret the author wished to impart upon his or her readers. I hated this task for its baseness, how it assumed so much about why and how we write and read. I’d always jot down the dumbest themes, sayings that you would see painted on a faux-rustic wooden sign in an overpriced gift shop: Life is short or Friendship is most important.

Basically I hate searching for themes and I especially hate the obvious themes, ideas so implicit they don’t seem to merit discussion or even direct acknowledgement by naming them. In a 9th grade book review for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I would write, “The theme is time changes us all.” In class if my teacher asked me to extrapolate, I’d say, “Time changes us all, for good, for bad. If we envision time, and life, as a river, it always flows, it always goes somewhere, even if we’re not sure where, and it occasionally, if we’re lucky, passes by the same people and same places again.” Then I would gag, because it seems so trite and so easy. But now I read a book that supports that idea and it touches me (present day Jill is gagging at the use of this verb, but whaddyagonnado?). In fact it touches me on kinda a deep level?

Maybe I’m just no longer a cynic or maybe Jennifer Egan is just a fantastic writer. This book put into words (and powerpoint slides!) a universal human feeling, a feeling so universal it feels terribly lame. Yet it didn’t feel forced but simply true.

4.5 out 5 stars