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The Goldfinch,  by Donna Tratt.

May 5, 2020

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch,  by Donna Tratt.  Little, Brown, 2016.

3 stars

A skillfully written book, a Pulitzer Prize winner, about an adolescent  boy left adrift when his mother is killed, dealing with his losses and dislocation, and getting caught up in drugs and criminal behavior.

Donna Tratt (1963- ) was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, and raised in the nearby town of Grenada. Her father was a local politician. She began college at the University of Mississippi, but when her writing ability was noticed, she transferred to Bennington College in Vermont from which she graduated.  Her early novels, The Little Friend and The Secret History, were received with acclaim. Despite being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, her newest novel has been both lauded and dismissed by both critics and ordinary readers.

In the book, thirteen-year-old Theo and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum and are caught in a terrorist bombing that kills her and leaves him rootless and ungrounded. In the chaos, he takes a tiny but famous painting from the 1600s which becomes a talisman for him, an object of beauty and meaning when all else is gone.  Theo’s mother was the only stable force in his life and he spends much of the rest of the book caught up in his trauma and grasping for stability.  During his teenage years, he lives first with the wealthy family of a classmate and then with his troubled and alienated father.  Finally he finds his way to the home and shop of a kindly antique restorer and dealer with whom he works and becomes a business partner.   As he enters his twenties, he seems to have settled down, but he still grasps for what he has lost and is vulnerable to echoes of his past.

Tratt has written a big book, 700+ pages which she has filled with an amazing cast of subplots and characters.  Rich detail balances the story’s tensions and excitement. She is an excellent story teller, writing in a somewhat conventional, chronological manner, but expansively expanding her tale.  At times the story had the brooding mood that I associate with authors from the American south.  Scattered throughout the book are deeply philosophical musing about beauty, art, and whether or not life has meaning.

Yet, for all its excellence I simply did not like The Goldfinch.  Some major critics have also complained about its selection for the Pulitzer Prize.  My response was very personal.  As much as I tried, I was not able to empathize with the book’s adolescent hero or those with whom he associates himself.   I saw and felt his initial trauma and loss, but his drift into drugs and criminality left me cold.  Even Tratt’s more reflective sections which reached toward universal questions could not involve me.  The books I like best are those that touch me. For all its perfection, this book did not.

This is a book that people either love or hate.  I can only recommend it to those who are curious about its celebrity and more tolerant than I am about unlikable characters.

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