Thirty-three weeks on the New York Times best seller list, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, to boot, The Goldfinch was released in the fall of 2013, and I, as usual, am late to the party, having just gotten around to reading it.
I really like this writer. She is the author of The Secret History, which was quite different from The Goldfinch. That one was dark and rather unsettling, while this one is… OK, less dark, and less unsettling.
We meet the protagonist when he is 13, suspended from his NYC school to which he goes on scholarship, for some not very heinous offense. He and his mother are on their way to an appointment with the headmaster, but stop off at a museum to pass the time because they are quite early.
As they walk through the galleries, they stop at Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, painted in 1654. Fabritius was a Dutch painter, one of Rembrandt’s pupils. He died young, caught in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine on October 12, 1654, which destroyed a quarter of the city, along with his studio and many of his paintings. Only about a dozen paintings have survived.
The Goldfinch is a stunning vibrant work, not very large, and his mother explains the history to him. He is only half listening because he is interested in a redheaded girl about his own age touring the museum with a crippled elderly man who looks to be her grandfather. But eventually, he and his mother move on to another gallery. His mom suggests he pop down to the gift store to pick up some postcards, but he lingers when he comes to the gallery where The Goldfinch is hanging so he can watch the girl and her grandfather. Suddenly, there is a terrific explosion, debris, fires and falling walls and ceilings everywhere.
He is knocked out, but when he comes to, he is near the old man, who is very hurt, and apparently dying. He talks to the man, comforts him, and stays with him. They seem to be the only ones left alive in that room. The man gives him a curious ring, and tells him to take it to a certain address in the Village. He then dies. Still stunned, with his ears ringing and an awful headache, our boy sees the Goldfinch painting, out of its frame, just lying in the rubble. He picks it up in a daze, comes upon a shopping bag and puts it in the bag. Then he makes his way out of the building, stumbling around, lost, never seeing anyone alive. He finds a side door and leaves.
He looks through the crowd and emergency personnel surrounding the area for his mother, can’t find her so goes back home, their agreed-upon go-to if they lose each other at an event, etc. He waits, and waits, and in the middle of the night, two social workers come to tell him his mother died in the explosion.
His father, a smarmy, abusive alcoholic with big dreams and no competence, left them 8 months ago, much to their relief, his whereabouts now unknown. The social workers offer to take the boy to any relative or friend to keep him out of the system until they can locate his father. The only phone number he can think of is a sort-of friend from his school, a nerd from a very wealthy family. The family agrees to take him in.
And thus begins the story of the pillar-to-post life of this young boy and of the now very-much sought-after painting of the Goldfinch in his possession.
It is a fabulous story in the great tradition of fabulous stories, filled with wonderfully drawn characters, and outrageous situations. We follow his life as his father, finally found, takes him to a half-abandoned subdivision in Las Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend. He mostly ignores his son, who at school meets the wild and crazy Boris, ignored son of a traveling Russian mining engineer, and the two spend a couple of years mostly drinking and drugging and never going to school. The father dies in a car accident, and our boy takes himself back to NYC where he is taken in by the partner of the old man in the museum. He grows up to be a dealer in fine antique furniture, most of which is not genuine but beautifully crafted restorations. As in The Art Forger , where we learned about copying and forging paintings, in this book we learn a lot about furniture restoration, the antique furniture trade and scams, and the world of big money. And the painting? Well you should ask, because …….
Although a prize winner, this book received a fair amount of negative criticism because it is all about an emotional story, and the critiques are mainly about the writing style. I don’t know. I liked it a lot. It is a long book — 800 pages — but it is one that you certainly cannot put down. I didn’t have any problems with the writing style. I mean, how flowery do you want when talking about a boy untreated for his PTSD, his grief for his mother, and then his father, who has no family and finally no roots, but he does have a world class painting that it is now much too late to turn back in to the museum without grave consequences.
It is character-driven, but there is plenty of action. Plenty. My only tiny criticism is the three or four pages at the end where he is musing on morality, destiny, obsession, and life in general. Could have done without that. For me, the book ended right before all that ruminating.
But gotta say, this chick is one great storyteller!