Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Review - The Goldfinch

I'm challenging myself to read all the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction as part of my 50 Things To Do Before I'm 50 list, and I've just completed my 14th prize winner. (Warning - there are a few spoilers in my review!)

This 700+ page novel was last year's winner. The Goldfinch is narrated by 27-year-old Theodore Decker as he looks back on his life and its many twists and turns. When he was 13-years-old, he and his mother were visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb exploded. His mother (and many others) were killed in the explosion, however Theo (in a disoriented concession-like state) is able to get out of the museum with a valuable and rare painting, The Goldfinch.

Theo's father had abandoned him and his mother some time before the incident at the museum, so he is taken in by the wealthy family of one of his school friends. During this time, he plods along, not feeling that he particularly belongs in the family, but nonetheless feeling safe. He also meets Hobie, the partner of an older gentlemen who he comforted (and who died) during the explosion at the museum. Hobie is a carpenter who repairs antique furniture, and Theo finds comfort in spending time with him in his workshop . . . and visiting with his niece who survived the explosion as well.

I was well into the book and really enjoying it at this point. I felt optimistic about Theo's future and the fact that he would ultimately find some way to return the painting, which he'd kept hidden all this time not sure how to explain how he came to have it in his possession. Then Theo's father (with his girlfriend) show up out of the blue and cart Theo off to live with them in Las Vegas. His father was a gambler and rarely home, so Theo meets and begins to hang out with Boris, who will be his lifelong friend. The boys spend most of their time drinking, doing drugs, and shoplifting. This portion of the book went on forever it seemed and was filled with lots of profanity and disturbing scenes of drug abuse, alcoholism and parental neglect, and I have to admit that I was bummed that I still had half the book to go.

This portion of Theo's story finally comes to a close when his father is killed in an auto accident as he's trying to leave town to avoid the men who are trying to collect his gambling debts. Theo steals money and drugs from his father's girlfriend and buys a bus ticket back to New York. When he shows up at Hobie's door, tired, dirty and without a place to stay, Hobie takes him in and eventually becomes his temporary guardian. I was relieved and thought this would be a huge turning point in the story, however although Hobie offered Theo a stable life and they eventually became partners in the antiques store/restoration business, Theo continues to be a drug addict and then also fraudulently sells furniture stating that is a rare antique when it is in fact a reproduction or a piece restored using new and old pieces and parts.

All this time, Theo had the painting (which he'd wrapped up securely inside a pillow case wound with lots of packing tape while he was in Las Vegas) stored in a temperature and humidity controlled storage unit. Although he still contemplated how he could return the painting after all this time, he felt a sense of security knowing it was there . . . until Boris shows up on the scene again years later and informs him that he actually took the painting back in Vegas and replaced the package with one similar. Boris is mixed up with drug trafficking and the painting has been used as collateral for all sorts of illegal transactions, but is currently lost after a botched deal. Theo is devastated, but he somehow continues to interact with Boris and they end up going to Amsterdam to retrieve the painting . . . which results in a showdown in which they each shoot and kill the gangsters that are also trying to retrieve the painting.

There are lots of other things going on in this novel - Theo is in love with Hobie's niece, but he's eventually engaged to his friend's sister, although they don't love each other. A client is threatening to reveal that Theo (& Hobie) are selling fraudulent "antiques", Theo's friend and his father are killed in a boating accident,  etc. I have to admit that the storyline definitely made me want to continue reading to see what happened next (despite having to wade through the excessive bad language and disturbing drug scenes), yet the story could have been told much more succinctly. The painting, which should obviously be the central focus of the story as the book is titled after it, is often just something in the background that's not even mentioned for pages (or 100s of pages) at a time. And, after all that time invested, the conclusion was terribly disappointing.

In the end, everything seems to work out ok as Boris finds a way to return the painting to authorities (while collecting a HUGE reward, which he shares with Theo and some of the other thugs), Theo is able to buy back most of the furniture that was sold fraudulently without it affecting Hobie's business, and everyone continues on with their lives as if all these things (death, murder, theft, fraud, drugs, alcoholism, lies deceit) are simply part of life without really huge consequences. In the last 20 or so pages of the book, several of the characters (Boris, Hobie, Theo) verbalize what they've learned or how they feel about the events that have happened, which certainly should have been unnecessary at the end of 700 pages - somehow it seems the author could have shown those lessons learned rather than simply telling them at the end.

Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Our book group read this book last year. I thought it was wonderful although I thought the author could have shortened the section that takes place in Las Vegas.

  2. For me, this was a "can't put down" book, but on the other hand so depressing I wondered why I kept reading it. The hope that something good would come out of it all was what kept me going. And it didn't end the way I (and probably everyone else) wanted it to. I did feel pulled in to the book, transported whenever I picked it up, which to me, is the sign of a good author. All in all a very good read.


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