Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” Impresses

Mary Baker ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Cover art for The Goldfinch.  Photo Courtesy of
Cover art for The Goldfinch. Photo Courtesy of

Explosions, Russian mobsters, and a missing painting—the perfect recipe for an action movie, but these plot elements also work seamlessly to form the backbone of award-winning author Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch. The nearly 800-page novel follows Theo Decker, a young boy whose mother is killed in a museum bombing and whose father left them when he was young. Through a set of mysterious circumstances, Theo ends up with Carl Fabritius’ masterpiece, the titular Goldfinch, and an old ring. The consequences from holding both these objects causes Theo’s life to turn 180 degrees as he is shuffled from house to house, coast to coast, searching for a sense of normalcy.

Tartt’s dense prose allows the reader to slowly sink into the gorgeous description life through the eyes of Theo. Sprawling Las Vegas wastelands seem nearly ethereal in Tartt’s hand, and her love for classical painting is clear through Theo’s (seemingly random and never explained) obsession with it. Towards the end of the novel, the story begins to sputter and become preachy, but throughout the entire misshapen plot runs the golden string of Tartt’s descriptive genius. A notable line: “…as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”

The powerful impact of another terrorist attack in post-9/11 New York is felt very strongly within the first pages of the novel, but the rest of the novel seems to exist in an alternate dimension that allows thirteen year old boys to talk like they’re straight out of Great Expectations.

With a Dickensian flair, Tartt’s chronicle of Theo’s life contains a cast of crazy characters who are infinitely more interesting than he. Tartt takes special joy in crafting the fantastical Boris, Theo’s friend who is “mostly from Australia, Russia and Ukraine” and tried more illegal things than he can remember. The story’s pace is best when Boris is involved, otherwise the plot has a tendency to recede into a plodding dullness.

As previously mentioned, The Goldfinch spans much of Theo’s life, and lights upon certain moments that define his existence. That being said, there are many sudden jumps in his timeline that are startling at first, but Tartt handles them masterfully and eases the reader into the next stage of Theo’s life with as little interruption as possible.

The real painting currently resides in The Hague museum in the Netherlands, and although Tartt’s beautiful story is not true, it gives a hefty narrative weight to a picture of a bird, who, like Theo, is chained (one physically, one emotionally) to a single place in all of space and time. Luckily for the reader, Donna Tartt decides to set the story free.

Rating: ★★★★ (B)

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  1. Doesn’t the beginning of tigers story take place in 1999? I’m bothered by the mention of the push button to start a car, and shoe bomber, which didn’t happen til years later. Am I wrong?

    1. I’m only 200 pages into the book – but like you I am confused about the references/timing. As the main character begins his telling of the story from a hotel room in Amsterdam – he mentions the day his mother died as an event that happened 14 years ago. So unless he’s writing from the future (well beyond 2013) it’s around 1999 when Theo is in NYC and Vegas. But too many things feel more modern. Like you pointed out, the push start Lexus; a doorman references ‘LeBron’ (unless there is another famous LeBron, Lebron James would have been 15 years old in 1999); 8th grade kids texting on their own personal cell phones…
      I’m confused (or disappointed in the sloppy reference checking)

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