As a huge fan of The Secret History, I expected a lot from The Goldfinch: a good, intricate story, some sort of mystery and some good research to back it up and make it as realistic as can be. While it had that, it also had a couple of things that I really don’t enjoy in a book.
First: Las Vegas. It is amazing that many authors seem to think that is a great place to set a story. Well, it does have some interesting features, I suppose. Given the features of the town’s main business and the huge more or less transient population it attracts (and I am not talking about the tourists), it does make it a place where deviants can freely break the rules, be it the law, or the usual North American moral constrictions. So, Las Vegas is the ultimate grey zone of North American morality, and that might make a pretty good setting for a story. However, I hate Las Vegas with a passion, and for all its glitter and proposed “fun times”, the artificiality of it just repels me.
Second: drugs. I do not enjoy reading about drug use, drug abuse, the “good” and bad effects of drugs, the lengths to which people go to get their fix and the problems that it causes. I include alcohol in the “drugs” I object hearing about when I am trying to get into a good story. I accept that the search for mind-altering substances is part of human experience and that it will occasionally make its way into a story as an integral part of it but I am past finding it interesting when it seems to take over the whole story.
So, the bad part of The Goldfinch is that the main character is taken to Las Vegas in his early teens, to live with his alcoholic father and drug-dealing girlfriend where he himself gets into pretty serious substance abuse. After his father’s death, he finds himself alone at 15 and finds his way back to New York where he is taken in by some friends, who over the years seem not to notice the extent of his drug problems. And the story careens on to rather violent climactic end, where a few people get very lucky…
Granted there is a lot more than that to The Goldfinch. The main character, Theo Decker, got suspended from his private high school on suspicion of smoking. He and his mother have to go meet a school official to discuss the situation. To kill some time and because it is raining, they step into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They happen to be in the Museum when a bomb explodes. Theo’s mom is killed and Theo is alive, but damaged in many invisible ways. When he regains consciousness in the rubble, he finds an older man, still alive but badly injured and talks with him until he looses consciousness. Before his death, this older man gives him a ring and enough information for Theo to find his business associate. This person will become one of the most significant persons in Theo’s life.
When Theo finally walks out of the museum building, deserted because of a second bomb scare, he leaves with a small but very valuable painting of a Dutch master representing a goldfinch. In the chaos around the museum, nobody seems to notice him and realize that he is one of the victims and may be in need of assistance. Theo is distressed not to find his mother and obeying one of their long-time rules, decides to return home to wait for her. Eventually, his mother’s body is identified and child services start looking for him.
Because his father is at the time impossible to find and his paternal grand-parents cannot take him in, he ends up staying with the well-to-do family of a school friend, the Barbours, for the rest of the school year. As summer approaches, his father shows up in New York to take him to Vegas.
As for the rest of the intrigue, I will not reveal the details here. There is much to find out about the significance of the painting and the repercussions of Theo having taken it. And there are many twists and turns related to Theo’s best buddy in Vegas, a Russian/Polish/Ukrainian kid with a history of violence and survival quite beyond the ordinary. And the deep ties that he created with the Barbours also provide an anchor to a life that otherwise had few moorings. Ah, and his enduring love for the alluring Pippa, a fragile survivor, like him.
In the end, The Goldfinch is a good story, but I did find some parts a bit long to read through.