Reub's journey

31 January 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse book review: The Goldfinch

Photo from CBS News

The Goldfinch, a tiny painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius created a huge stir at New York's Frick Museum exhibition of Dutch art these past few months. The star of the show was supposed to be  Vermeer's exquisite Girl With A Pearl Earring (made extra famous by Tracy Chevalier's 1999 historical novel, followed by a movie).

Line outside the Frick. Photo by Christian Johnston
October 22, the day that the Frick exhibit opened, was the same day that Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was released, an accidental synchronicity of which neither the author, publisher, nor museum had been aware. This seems crazily unlikely, but there you have it. Crowds lined up to see it until the exhibit closed on January 19.

The painter Fabritius died in an explosion that leveled a quarter of the Dutch city of Delft in 1654, when the artist was only 32 years old. His studio and most of his work was destroyed, although this tiny tromp l'oeil painting of a chained bird managed to survive the disaster with minimal damage. I wish I could have seen The Goldfinch when it was in the US, but instead I read the eponymous book.

The  painting is the fulcrum of Donna Tartt's book, in which it survives another awful explosion and is taken from the surreal rubble by the book's dazed 13-year-old protagonist Theo. I couldn't resist wanting to read this novel, which sounded like a combination of art-crime and a coming-of-age story.

Be warned: the painting of a small bird chained to a shelf should be your first clue... The Goldfinch is not a fun and easy read. It's kind of like watching a Coen brothers movie: you can't look away and you keep hoping that the hapless characters will stop their downward spiral of terrible ideas. There is a desolate, feral quality to poor Theo's teen years, and there are lots and lots of drugs. Just when a character seems ready to fly free, he's yanked back to reality, kind of like that poor little bird. Tough stuff, and not to everybody's taste. Yet...I kept reading.  Nobody in this book is perfect, but just when you think a character is a total loser, he/she does something or says something redeeming. There is dark humor. Theo and his Ukranian friend Boris get mixed up in international crime, but you never stop hoping they'll come out okay.

This is a post 9-11 book with the main questions spelled out in the end.  As Boris says:

...good doesn't always follow from good deeds, nor bad deeds result from good, does it? Even the wise and good cannot see the end of all actions.

I wish I could tell you how the book ends, but that would be a mistake. You should read it. You won't love most of what happens, but it is a good book.

At the recent Dutch Painting exhibit, Frick Museum, New York. Photo by Karstan Moran for the NYT

I'm out of town for  a few days, but when I come back I'll want to catch up on the other book reviews at Armchair Squid.


  1. After this review I am not sure I WANT to read The Goldfinch. My husband is reading it at the moment and I’m supposed to be next. He hasn’t complained yet, although he did say that Tartt’s pace is rather leisurely.

    I’ve just finished Stoner, not an easy read either but I couldn’t put it down. It’s only towards the end that you recognise that the character is who and what he is. I find acceptance is often hard, particularly if his/her character are miles removed from your own.

    1. I've heard great things about Stoner. That's near the top of my list, too. :)

  2. You have definitely captured my attention.

  3. This book is near the top of my to-read list. I've heard it's very Dickensian, which appeals to me. I love struggling characters, I don't know why.

    Fantastic review!

  4. Goodness! Another book that sounds very intense. I'd sandwich this one between something light and fluffy I think. Good one!
    Author of Wilder Mage at Spirit Called
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  5. I had downloaded a sample of that book and was very much intrigued. In the end, I decided against buying it, mainly due to the negative reviews and length of the book. I decided I wasn't ready to make the investment. But, I might change my mind. Thanks for your review!

  6. You've also raised my curiosity with this one. It's going on my reading list too.

  7. I guess I'll eventually tackle it.

  8. Hmmm ... I am not exactly salivating to read this although I'm sure it has it rewards for those who choose to.

  9. The marriage of literature with fine art is a welcome development. Let's hope this is a growing trend.

    Sounds like a fun book. In my opinion, the best characters are always the ones whose position on the moral spectrum is fluid.

  10. I've read many intense reviews of the book. I'm content with the reviews - do not need to read the book.

  11. Oh, awesome review... I am absolutely clueless about what goes on, so I didn't know any of this - I feel much more educated now.

  12. I was intrigued until you made the Coen Brothers analogy...not a huge fan. But I think I want to know more....

  13. I'll be reading this one in the coming months.

  14. That painting is compellingly sad: would give this story a go, definitely :-)

  15. Indeed a crazy coincidence - which I am sure would have seen skyrocketing book sales and enormous viewership of the painting. Great review - looks like a must read.

  16. It sounds like an intriguing read - but potentially depressing. I would hope there was at least some light at the end of the tunnel though. ;)


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