Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Read: The Goldfinch

Each summer I feel like there's one book everyone is reading. Last year it was "50 Shades of Grey," the year before that it was "Gone Girl" and this year it's "The Goldfinch."

My sister read the book for her book club and then was kind enough to pass her copy onto me. The book weighs in at 784 pages and I kid you not when I say I spent months reading it.

I finished the book three weeks ago and have been struggling to figure out how to describe the experience. Then I received an email from one of my college friends that said:

"I have to tell you, I have been hate-reading 'The Goldfinch' for what seems like the last five weeks."

Hate-reading! That's it.

While "The Goldfinch" is beautifully written and utilizes a vocabulary so robust I found myself looking up at least two new words per chapter, the story is so long, convoluted and ultimately pointless, that is leaves you frustrated and asking yourself, "How many other books could I have read instead of fighting my way through this one?"

That being said, there were some redeeming qualities.


The book tells the story of Theo Decker, a young man who loses his mother at age thirteen. The first 100 pages of the book describe the horrific explosion inside a New York City museum that claimed her life and traumatized Theo's.

The way the book is written, Theo always remembers his mother as a warm, loving, almost mythical person. Here he describes her work:

"My mother's advertising firm specialized in women's accessories. All day long, under the agitated and slightly vicious eye of Mathilde, she supervised photo shoots where crystal earrings glistened on drifts of fake holiday snow, and crocodile handbags - unattended, in the back seats of deserted limousines - glowed in coronas of celestial light. She was good at what she did; she preferred working behind the camera rather than in front of it; and I knew she got a kick out of seeing her work in subway posters and on billboards in Times Square. But despite the gloss and sparkle of teh job (champagne breakfasts, gifts bags from Berdorf's) the hours were long and there was a hollowness at the heart of it that - I knew - made her sad. What she really wanted was to go back to school, though of course we both knew that there was little chance of that now my dad had left."

After her death, Theo bounces from a friend's house, to his long lost father's place in Las Vegas and then back to New York City. Over the years, Theo develops an intense drug problem. An example of one of his rationalizing monologues:

"It was a myth you couldn't function on opiates: shooting up was one thing but for someone like me - jumping at pigeons beating from the sidewalk, afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder practically to the point of spasticity and cerebral palsy - pills were the key to being not only competent, but high-functioning.  Booze made people sloppy and unfocused: all you had to do was look at Platt Barbour sitting around at J.G. Melon at three o'clock in the afternoon feeling sorry for himself. As for my dad: even after he'd retained the faint clumsiness of a punch-drunk boxer, butterfingered with a phone or a kitchen timer, wet brain people called it, the mental damage from hard-core drinking, neurological stuff that never went away. He'd been seriously screwy in his reasoning, never able to hold down any kind of long-term job. Me - well, maybe I didn't have a girlfriend or even any non-drug friends to speak of but I worked twelves hours a day, nothing stressed me out, I wore Thom Browne suits, socialized smilingly with people I couldn't stand, swam twice a week and played tennis on occasion, stayed away from sugar and processed foods. I was relaxed and personable, I was as thin as a rail, I did not indulge in self pity or negative thinking of any kind, I was an excellent salesman - everyone said so - and business was so good that what I spent on drugs, I scarcely missed."

As an adult, Theo eventually finds solace in a relationship with his friend's younger sister. I loved the way he talked about how she awakened him:

"Who knew it was in my power to make anyone so happy? Or that I could ever be so happy myself? My moods were a slingshot; after being locked-down and anesthetized for years my heart was zinging and slamming itself around like a bee under a glass, everything bright, sharp, confusing, wrong - but it was a clean pain as opposed to the dull misery that had plagued me for years under the drugs like a rotten tooth, the sick dirty ache of something spoiled. The clarity was exhilarating; it was as if I'd removed a pair of smudged-up glasses that fuzzed everything I saw. All summer long I had been practically delirious; tingling, daffy, energized and running on gin and shrimp cocktails and the invigorating whock of tennis balls. And all I could think was Kitsey, Kitsey, Kitsey!"

I will give author Donna Tartt credit for the last 100 - 150 pages of the book. Several of the main characters are involved in some serious plot twists that reach out and grab your attention after you've been snoozing for pages and pages.

I wanted to share one last excerpt about the book's title. I've always been fascinated with book titles. How do authors choose to summarize their whole story with just a few words? Well, "The Goldfinch" is the name of a painting, but also the one thing that keeps Theo together like glue as his world crumbles around him year after year. When he thinks he has lost the painting, he confesses:

"Warm weary shop. I could not stay still; I stood up and sat down, walked to the window and back again. Everything was sodden with horror. A bisque Pulcinella eyed me with spite. Even the furniture looked sickly and disproportionate. How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had. The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart."

While there is no questions that Donna Tartt is brilliant, this book is not worth giving up weeks of valuable reading time on your commute or vacation. Ignore the hype and indulge in a true beach book. I wish I had!

Did you read the book? Love it or hate-read it?

*Image source. 


  1. These are pretty much my exact thoughts on The Goldfinch. You don't really get invested in the plot or the characters, but something about it just keeps you reading! I guess it's just Donna Tartt's writing style. I borrowed it from my mom and she felt the same way about it.

    1. Exactly. Her writing itself is beautiful, but the plot is just too all over the place.

  2. i haven't read anything since giving birth-- but i loved donna tartt's the secret history and have wondered if i could ever find time for the goldfinch! i love the term hate-read and definitely have to use it sometime, if i ever have the chance to start reading something, ha!!


    1. If you find the time to put down Henry and pick up a book, don't let it be this one! Just too long and unfocused!


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