The Literacy Guild

Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ novel displays realistic human emotion

Recently, I stumbled on a novel called “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart which is about a story of a young boy named Theo who tries to navigate and understand his emotions as he deals with the aftermath of his mother’s death. While it was a Pulitzer Prize winner, both the book and its movie adaptation received quite a bit of criticism.

I had spent about two weeks reading “The Goldfinch,” which was a bit slower than average. Part of the reason why I was so slow reading it was that it was a very different style from what I usually read.

The author seemed to have a tone that was both far away yet close at the same time, and the way she described events was extremely original. For example, when Theo was at the museum and the explosion happened, there was none of the onomatopoeia that I had grown accustomed to reading. Instead, the character explains everything almost in slow motion. He zooms in on one thing, then another, the way a real person would.

For me, this was extremely refreshing and realistic rather than hearing something along the lines of, “Bam! And the building exploded around me.” I especially enjoyed the way this part was written and reread it several times to appreciate the craft in it. 

Additionally, Theo’s mood swings were extremely realistic and helped me to understand his character. For example, Theo had had an extreme burst of inspiration and effort as he studied relentlessly for an upcoming test for a pre-college program. However, when he made it in, he was apathetic towards his courses and only did the bare minimum, which made his professors more and more disappointed and finally, even resentful.

His sudden bursts of energy were well defined, as well as how he suddenly fell back to not caring without any real reason. When I tried to put myself in Theo’s shoes, it was saddening and emotionally painful to think about what he was probably going through. 

However, there were parts of the story that were perplexing for me to read. For example, when Theo moves into Las Vegas with his dad, he takes up the habit of drinking and smoking from his close friend Boris. They engage in dangerous acts such as swimming in a pool drunk. 

I actually didn’t have too many problems with his actions, because they were realistic. Many people have become more attached or even addicted to drugs after a traumatizing event such as the death of a loved one. In that sense, Tart did a realistic and accurate portrayal of how Theo would have followed what his friend does, especially since his friend brings him solace and emotional support.

While that part was done beautifully, Theo never seemed to regret his actions, especially since he had said that drinking had now become a habit. Here, it seemed Tart missed an opportunity to show character development because had he shown regret over his poor choices, it would have shown his change and maturity over time.

At the same time, Theo’s character was consistent throughout the novel in that he never consciously thought about his past or regretted it. Instead, he would unconsciously hold on to his past, such as when he stole the Goldfinch painting which was related to his mother but never thought about her consciously. It’s possible Tart chose to not have Theo show regret for his actions to further maintain his state of being unconsciously trapped in the past. 

In that sense, if Tart had written that Theo regretted drinking and smoking at a young age, she would have been able to show character development as Theo would have been able to face his difficult past.

Another part of the story was just confusing for me. The entire book is centered around Theo slowly recovering from his mother’s death. However, Theo’s father and childhood friend Andy also die. Theo’s reactions to their deaths are vastly different from that of his mother’s.

Theo’s first reaction to his father dying was to have an argument with Xandra. While Theo may not have been as close with his father as he had been with his mother, he still should have felt some shock or some kind of vague regret or sadness. His reaction was to argue with Xandra and then run away, which portrays him to the reader as uncaring. While his reaction could be seen as distress, he runs away because his dad or legal guardian has died and he doesn’t want to stay with Xandra, so it doesn’t seem grief driven at all.

His reaction to Andy’s death was just as tepid. When he heard of the news, he was shocked, and denied it, but then accepted the news quickly and moved on. There was no flashback to him and Andy playing around, or his goodbye with his friend. Instead, Theo just moves past this event like it had barely happened. 

While he could be hiding the pain of the loss, Theo never mentions his friend Andy again in the story, or when he does, it was just in passing. If Theo really cared about his friend, would he really never think about Andy?

I’m not saying that Theo had to start crying over these deaths, because that would have contradicted his character. However, Theo not thinking at all about his dead friend and father shows inconsistencies in his personality.

In conclusion, “The Goldfinch” had several emotionally moving moments and an intriguing writing style, but the main character’s reactions to events, especially later in the book, soured the journey for me.