Winner of a Pulitzer Prize? Highly acclaimed novel? Much discussed among literary circles? Well that wasn’t enough to convince me to read this book. I waited until I heard several people discussing it, saying it was “rather elementary” and “seemed to be for younger readers”. Then my curiosity was piqued. It hadn’t been pitched to me as a young adult book, so I wondered how this award winning novel could be described in such a fashion.
Oddly enough, those are not the issues I had with this book. Let me preface my review by stating that I actually enjoyed this tale and it wasn’t one of those tomes I put aside after a few chapters, only picking it up after a few weeks to force myself to read it, just to check it off on my GoodReads list. (Yes, this has happened. Rather often. Most recently with Unbroken, which I ended up falling in love with…but more on that soon).
As a mother, this book pulled me in from the first chapter, when the protagonist, Theo, describes the death of his mother in this way: “Her death the dividing mark: Before and After. And though it’s a bleak thing to admit all these years later, still I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.” Although I felt a kinship after reading that line, and surmised that she must, most certainly, be a mother herself, this article indicated that is not the case. The book begins with the adult Theo alone in an Amsterdam hotel, ill with fever and hiding out from we know not what. Throughout the book, that thought hangs above all other details of the story. “What does he do to end up alone and sick in a hotel room?” This we do not discover until nearly the end of this 771 page novel. For the record, I adore lengthy novels. I have been known to choose a book just because it’s very heft captivates me. I love carrying around a bulky book, smelling the pages periodically and leaving it where I can see it. My love affair with the written word runs deep.
Not to take away from the key role of Theo, the central character is truly the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch.
Theo and his mother are on their way to a meeting at his prep school when she decides that they should stop at the Met to wait out a rainstorm. The exhibit of work by Northern European Masters intrigues them but, inevitably they get separated. Theo’s mother decides to run back and catch another glimpse of some work she admires, while Theo is captivated by a young girl who is in the gallery with her grandfather. There is a bomb and upon regaining consciousness amongst the rubble, Theo is given The Goldfinch by the girl’s grandfather, who passes away shortly after. The older man instructs him with a vague message “Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell.” This sets off a chain of events, that dictates the young man’s life from that day forward.
After returning to his apartment to wait for his mother (with the painting), his sad life of being cast aside as irrelevant and insignificant has been set in motion. Theo is taken in by a Park Avenue family of a childhood friend for some time, then ends up with his previously absent father in Las Vegas for a lengthy spell and is introduced to a wide variety of characters who are comedic relief, but also heartbreakingly pathetic. The book abounds with orphans, which is tragic in it’s own right and tugged at my heartstrings. Theo has a wild, unruly friend in Boris (who practically lives with him in Vegas) and an unrequited love with Pippa (the girl from the Met whose grandfather died after giving Theo the painting). For years the painting remains something he holds onto and keeps secreted away, a last link to his beloved mother and the one unchanged thing in his life. This idea is reaffirmed when he slides the painting out to look at it and says how it enveloped him “the way your heart beat slow and sure when you were with a person you felt safe with and loved.” He knows that he shouldn’t keep it locked away, for art is eternal and should be out in the world to be appreciated, to be loved and admired. Yet, he can’t release it and continues to find ways to store it away. Over time, the fate of the painting becomes the climax and denouement both.
Theo spends the bulk of the tale in grief or clouded by drugs and depression. His mother’s death lead him down this dark path and we are lead to wonder if she had lived, would he have been a different person entirely? It brings us to reflect upon how an event can change the path of our lives and send us down an entirely different journey. Could he break free of this cyclical existence of heartache and loss?
The characters are incredibly well detailed and believable. The intricacies of the settings in the book and the events are so well described, that it wraps you up in the story and you feel as though you are with Theo the entire time. I wavered between feeling bad for him and wanting to slap him back to reality. He is at points pathetic, at other points ridiculously foolish and yet, there is always the thought that “maybe I would be that way too, in his circumstances.” Could that be why this book works? I don’t feel that it is a young adult book because the themes in it are beyond teenage comprehension. We need age and experience to fully grasp the meaning of this novel. Yes, youth can read the book. Just like I read The Catcher in the Rye at age twelve. However, it is a much different book to me now. The Goldfinch is concluded with pages reflecting on how significant art is and how we should respect and preserve it. This section is a bit tedious and I found it something to trudge through after such an involved story, spanning such a great amount of time. Glad I read it, yes. It kept my attention, which can be tricky, but it was sad and dark and still…I went on to read Unbroken after it. I think some funny books are in order for me soon.
Up next…Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.