There have been many reviews of this book, so these are a few observations aimed at those who have already read it.
Theo, the narrator, describes himself late in the book as ‘nihilistic.’ The reasons why this might be are obvious, the most important being the death of his mother in an explosion when he is thirteen. Another is the fact that he can never get it together with the love of his life, Pippa. And after the death of his mother, his life takes strange turns. He lives with the Barbours for a while, a well-to-do family where the mother, Mrs Barbour, though apparently distant, looks after him well. But he is taken from this relatively stable environment by his father and his fancy-woman, Xandra, and removed to the totally different environment of Las Vegas, where he survives after a fashion till his father is killed. After that, though technically still a minor, he makes his way back to New York and ends up living and working with Hobie, who restores old furniture.
He deals with these setbacks in various ways, the most obvious being his use of drugs. The author knows a great deal about this subject and we can’t but wonder how. Sometimes the drugs seem to work, for a while at least, but the episodes when he tries to do without them are painful. Theo is also much given to falling ill with aches, pains and fevers. Perhaps he is not strong to start with, or perhaps continual drug use makes him more susceptible.
Some of his drug episodes find him at his most nihilistic. His analysis of life at these times seems to me entirely realistic. He is describing life as it is, and most of us who share this knowledge survive by not letting it get to us. We are not beset by the negative emotions which might be expected to go with our negative thoughts. If we were, survival would be difficult. To put it at its simplest: we know we’re going to die, so what’s the point in playing a game we’re bound to lose?
A chapter I particularly like occurs when Theo is trying to get off drugs for a while and suffering the consequences. In his semi-delirious state he thinks a series of dark thoughts, most of which bear scrutiny very well, though I would think that since they largely coincide with what I think myself – and I don’t do drugs. (Part 4, pages 475-478.)
So is it a good book? It’s long, and some might feel it could have been shorter. But this is a first person narrative and the author could argue that is how Theo would have written it.
There are many memorable characters. One of those turns out to be Theo’s father who, in his own inadequate way, does try to take responsibility for his son after the death of his mother. He is a gambler, and the gambler’s mind-set – hard to understand if you are not that way inclined – is well conveyed. Mrs Barbour is also well portrayed. A cultured lady and a cool customer in many ways, but one who genuinely cares for and about Theo. Then there is his eccentric friend Boris, worldly-wise beyond his years and always living in the moment. Not forgetting Hobie.
Hobie is into restoring furniture and, as the years go on, leaves Theo to handle the business side. This is a mistake, since Theo takes to passing off fakes as genuine, something Hobie himself would never have done. All of this is handled very well. I particularly liked Theo’s habit of selling a fake as genuine, then pretending to notice a mistake has been made and buying the item back. Why does he do this? To establish a provenance for the chair, table or whatever. This makes re-sale a lot easier and a lot safer.
The observation gets more satirical as the book progresses, which also means as the narrator gets older. But towards the end of the book, when Theo is in Amsterdam, events begin to take too farcical a turn for my taste, involving as they do murder and hit men.
There are various musings on the nature of art based on The Goldfinch of the book’s title. The publisher has kindly included a copy of this picture attached to the inside of the front cover.
Near the end of the book, Theo refers to the view that all paintings are self portraits, so it could also be suggested that all novels are self-portraits too, however artfully disguised. We could qualify that with some phrase like ‘to an extent’, but it’s probably true. A novel is an expression of its author, and this one is no exception.