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Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Little, Brown & Co., 771 pages, $30

“The Goldfinch” is a real painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s pupils. The artist was killed and his studio shattered in an explosion of a gunpowder storeroom in 1654, but this painting survived. Donna Tartt uses “The Goldfinch,” after which her book is named, to great effect. Throughout The Goldfinch, Tartt describes this painting emotionally, artistically, and intellectually through her protagonist, Theo Decker. The advantage to using a real painting is that with the ability for most of her readers to instantly access its image on the internet, they can see for themselves what Tartt/Decker is talking about.

The Goldfinch begins with Theo in considerable mental anguish and physical distress in a hotel in Amsterdam. Then comes a 600-page flashback to what brought him to that point. The Dickensian misery and the events that throw Theo into ever more fantastical situations flow from a day when he was 13 years old.

On that day in Manhattan, Theo, who had been suspended from his private school, and his mother were on their way to a meeting at that school. On the way, they decide to briefly stop at a museum to look at her favorite painting, “The Goldfinch.” For young Theo, part of the museum’s fascination is a girl he has spotted. She appears to be about his age and is accompanied by a man of grandfatherly vintage. At this intersection of joy and anxiety, a terrorist’s bomb explodes in the museum.

Theo and the girl, Pippa, survive. Theo’s mother and Pippa’s grandfather do not. In the chaos and confusion that follows — brilliantly described by Tartt — Theo hears the grandfather’s dying words and reaches for The Goldfinch, blown off the wall by the explosion but still somehow intact. He crawls to safety with the painting and only later heartbreakingly hears about the fate of his mother.

One thing leads to another and Theo never manages to tell anyone that he has the painting. In his 13-year-old brain, he imagines that he will be in serious trouble for having taken the painting. Each passing day brings another day’s agony for his delay. From his journey as an unofficial ward of a troubled upper class family, to his reunion with his wayward father and his brash girlfriend in Las Vegas, to his drug and alcohol daze with his best friend, Boris, another troubled juvenile, to landing on the doorstep of the kindly business partner of Pippa’s dead grandfather back in Manhattan, Theo’s childhood odyssey of happiness and despair takes up only the first half of Tartt’s book.

The adult Theo, present in the second half of the book, has some better luck, but poison again creeps into his life. It is to Tartt’s credit that she is able to pull off such an epic tale of woe without descending into schlock or pot-boiling pathos. Although the vision of Theo the Victim, standing paralyzed and open-mouthed as his life swirls the drain, is a frequent one, he is also the enthusiastic master of his destruction. However, Tartt never lets go of the central thesis that Theo at heart is a good boy, that he wants to do the right thing for the people he loves, that he is a genuine victim, that his edginess and acerbity/absurdity is a function of the twin devils of self-preservation and self-flagellation. Like the goldfinch in the painting, he is hobbled by a chain. Theo is tied to his guilt and a series of what-ifs that were never adequately addressed when he was younger.

Tartt talks about seeing the artist’s work as well as the picture he intended his viewers to see. The goldfinch is both a painting and a bird. Her book is like that: It is a story and it is the illumination of the human heart.

P.S. To enhance your experience, read Boris’s dialogue out loud (complete with Ukrainian accent, please).
P.P.S. The last twenty or so pages of the book are fabulous. Tartt's writing soars. It is bittersweet and satisfying.

1 comment:

  1. Art and life are shown to be symetrical in this wonderful novel which embraces all the inconsistencies and inconsistencies and mysteries of life. Truly a delightful and insightful read.