The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is many books wrapped up into one package. It’s a character study, coming-of-age, buddy story with a heist thrown in for good measure. And the reason I picked it is the aesthetic of dark academia, which is a hot trend in bookish circles these days. So, on top of all the genre-related variety, Tartt adds a tremendous amount of artistic and academic smarts.

On the other hand, most of the characters are unlikable bordering on despicable. But these characteristics don’t come from thin air. Circumstances and life choices damage every character in The Goldfinch. That means reading about these folks is one part rubbernecking and another part realizing, “But for the grace of God, that could be me.”

Summarizing a nearly 800-page book isn’t easy. But fundamentally The Goldfinch revolves around the life of Theo Decker. Two things define his story: addiction and accident. And neither of them makes for much happiness. We meet him during elementary school and follow his life for about two more decades.

As you can imagine, Theo goes through childhood and teenage angst. But his father’s desertion and his mother’s untimely and dramatic death only compound it. So this poor kid has extremely limited adult support. No one truly watches over him as he grows up. But instead of being unhoused, he lives on Park Avenue, New York City with the family of a school friend. Joining that family is like moving from the emotional frying pan to the fire.

At the same time, Theo is drawn to things of beauty. His mother was the kind of person who joins a museum and stops in randomly just to see today’s exhibits. Theo inherits this from her, and it serves as a small, healthy anchor to the big drama and mistakes in his life.

My conclusions

I count The Secret History by Donna Tartt as one of my all-time favorite books. So it’s regrettable that reading The Goldfinch took me so long. Like The Secret History, it’s quite literary while also being tense as any thriller on my shelf of favorite books.

I loved the plot’s connections to art and antique masterpieces and the world of buying and selling them. Yes, I like knowing how a master furniture refurbisher makes his magic. And when it shouldn’t be trusted.

But, let’s be honest, in a book with a varied cast, very few characters in the Goldfinch are someone I’d want to share coffee or a glass of wine with. No matter why they are emotionally damaged, the choices Theo and his various compatriots make don’t reflect my worldview. This makes the book more intriguing in some ways, even if uncomfortable in others.

Tartt moves the book’s plot forward with focus and impetus. I’m not a big fan of coming-of-age books, so that section of the story dragged for me. But you might prefer hearing about Theo’s high school foolishness and familial disconnections. Tartt moves between distinct time periods in a nonlinear way, which keeps the plot themes and actions varied.

All in all, The Goldfinch satisfied my need for a long read with an absorbing plot. I recommend it if you like dark academia and don’t mind characters who continually choose the worst possible option.

Pair with The Maidens from Alex Michaelides or Long Bright River from Liz Moore. The themes of both books are similar to The Goldfinch.