The Goldfinch is staunchly traditional in its structure. It tells the story of Theo Decker, a young man who is violently de-mothered when a bomb explodes while they are visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
In the aftermath of the explosion the disoriented Theo has a package pressed on him by a dying old man, which he accepts out of deference to the old man’s imminent demise. It transpires the package contains the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch.
The story opens with the adult Theo in a state of disarray in an Amsterdam hotel room. From here he recounts the previous 17 years of his life following the fateful explosion which, unsurprisingly given the physical heft of the novel, are quite eventful.
After a brief stay with alpha-WASP’s the Barbour family following the explosion, he is uprooted from his native New York by his dissolute estranged father who has an obligatory brassy blonde girlfriend in tow, and is taken to the plastic fantastic world of Los Angeles.
The painting, which accompanies him wherever he travels, has become both a burden and a consolation for Theo. On the one hand it is a sort of Telltale Heart which may reveal him as crook at any moment. On the other it was once his mother’s favourite painting, and as such it feels it connects him to her and bathes him in a special aura.
In Los Angeles he pairs up with another semi-orphaned individual, the world weary Russian teenager called Boris. Together they embark on a series of misadventures which eventually bring Theo back to New York where he becomes a ward of the kindly Hobie who teaches him the antiques trade.
This leads to Theo’s involvement in counterfeiting antique furniture and brings the reader full circle to his eventual arrival in the Amsterdam hotel where we find him at the novels opening.
So does the Goldfinch deserve its status as the most incompletely read novel of 2014? The answer is yes. In its favour the novel is cinematic in its scope and moves along at a breezy pace. Unfortunately a breezy pace can only propel a reader for so long, and over the course of 771 pages it’s a matter of time until a reader hits the doldrums.
The bones of a good novel are present but are obscured under layers of flabby improbability. The unlikely scenarios required to keep its narrative engine running eventually exasperate. The Goldfinch could really do with some ruthless editing, perhaps by Stalin.
On top or this the novel is a tonally strange read, and not in a good way. At times it feels like it belongs in the young adult section of the bookshop. Some of the characters veer dangerously close to caricature. Specifically Hobie the twinkly eyed kindly antique storeowner is hard to swallow. He seems like a refugee from a fairy tale where he was perhaps employed as a saintly toy maker.
Tartt’s description of the Fabritius’ painting are also uninspiring, her interpretation being as conventional the structure of her novel. This is particularly apparent when compared to other books which include discussions of art such as Ali Smith’s sublime ‘How To Be Both’.
All in all I found The Goldfinch to be an unsatisfying read and after persevering to the end found myself envying the 56% of readers who had the good sense to put the novel aside at an earlier stage.