A picture paints a 1000 pages

7 November 2016

Last night I finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, 2013) and this paperback edition has 962 pages.  I had three thoughts on closing the book for the last time:
a long read is a wonderful thing,
it is love that allows us to escape our flaws, and
life can be short, brutal and unhappy but great art transcends the individual and elevates the mundane.

The picture that inspired the novel is the 1654 Carel Fabritius painting, which was acquired by the Maritshuis gallery in The Hague in 1896. In the novel, this painting is taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art by 13-year-old Theodore Decker after an explosion in the museum in which his mother dies. It serves as Theo’s talisman throughout his lonely life as a ward of his school friend Andy’s wealthy New York family and later in his unsupervised school days in Las Vegas, where he lives with his formerly estranged father and his father’s girlfriend who leave him largely to his own devices.  Here he meets the Ukrainian boy Boris who becomes his best friend and partner in a chaotic, drink- and drug-fuelled life of random exploits and petty crime. Another storyline stemming from the terrorist attack in the museum is Theo’s relationship with Pippa and her guardian Welty, who also dies in the explosion but not before telling Theo to pick up the painting and giving him a singular ring for delivery to his (Welty’s) partner in their antiques business. This is Hobie who becomes Theo’s guardian in his post-Las Vegas life and teaches him about the restoration of antique furniture.

The word most often used in reviews to describe this lengthy novel is “Dickensian”.  And it certainly reminds the reader of Dickens at times – the long descriptions of Hobie’s dim workshop, Theo’s rambling, depressed accounts of his state of mind, the far-fetched plot with its coincidences and reappearance of earlier characters. Despite being too long in parts, the story keeps the reader engaged and you want to find out what happens next. It is difficult to be entirely sympathetic to the damaged character of Theo. His attempts at explaining why he makes catastrophic decisions that wreck his and others’ lives seem too long-winded and self-conscious. However, it is incumbent on the reader to acknowledge that Theo is unable to overcome his flaws and become a better man because he lost his mother’s love and he can never accept that his father ever really loved either of them.

The other message of the book is that what will survive us is great art. As Theo says:
“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

This novel received several rave reviews and Donna Tartt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014. However, it was not universally warmly received and some of the criticisms included its far-fetched plotting, its sometimes careless language and use of lazy clichés, its overwritten sections and the accusation that it is not emotionally convincing. I agree with all of these and yet the novel is sufficiently engaging to be worth the read.