The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Shelf worth: 4/5
Of all the ridiculous decisions I've made this year, deciding to buy The Goldfinch in hardback ranks up there with signing up to run the Marathon. It is MASSIVE. Carrying it on the Tube made me strong: there are 771 reasons why Shelf Esteem was pushed back this week so I could finish it.
But oh dear lord, it's worth it. I loved going back into Tartt's carefully-drawn, rich world. Whether you loved or meh'd her previous work, I urge you to give this one a go. She writes effortlessly: I loved the references to furniture restoring, because you don't see the seams in her writing either. Descriptions and characters feel alive and real, and even if you're reading with your fingers clamped across your eyes at moments, you still feel completely safe in what Tartt is up to.
There is a lot of plot, so let's zip through that as quickly and unspoilerly as possible. Theo is 14 when his mother is killed in a museum bomb attack. In the dreamy in-between times between the blast and leaving, he comforts a dying old man who persuades him to take a painting, which turns out to be the last picture he looked at with his mother. It's the titular Goldfinch by Fabritius, who also died in an explosion.
Various Goldfinch significances flit in and out of the story, but it's Theo's life away from the painting that entrances. This is a great coming-of-age story whose length, far from dragging, allows you to wash around with Theo and the people who influence him or let him down. In the few pages you meet his mother, you fall in love with her. You share Theo's devastation. His absent father and off-screen family are dreadful, but not flatly so. Social workers don't provide the comforting safety net you'd hope for - in fact, none of the reaction to the explosion provides any comfort. Some of it makes you wince.
Just as some adults show some vague responsibility towards Theo, the aristocratically cranky Barbour family (terrific - Mrs Barbour is a stand-out) he is plucked away again. Tartt doesn't employ any cheap tricks; everything that happens to Theo feels natural - which is sometimes cheering (his dissolute friend Boris, his furniture-restoring mentor Hobie), sometimes disappointing.
The eventual wind-down to the conclusion feels a little as though Tartt has become so used to steering her vast ship that she's forgotten to add a brake. Still, everything is tied up as tightly and neatly as the chain on the goldfinch's leg - and while you live in this world, you are unlikely to want to leave it.