Book review: ‘The Goldfinch,’ By Donna Tartt
October 3, 2014
Nothing beats a good book with an enigmatic opening. An author can quickly lure a reader in with carefully placed morsels that tantalize and intrigue. Such is the case with the latest novel by in-vogue writer Donna Tartt. "The Goldfinch" is a monster of a read, nearly 800 pages long, and it is the result of more than a decade of work. It was clearly well worth Tartt's time, as it garnered the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has secured itself a comfortably steady spot on the New York Times' Best Sellers list.
Though released to much critical acclaim, the novel has also confused and disappointed some fans, who had exceedingly high expectations after the success of "The Secret History," a disturbing account of murder within a group of New England elite college students, all of whom are living lives of wealth and privilege. Vastly different, "The Goldfinch" focuses on a 13-year-old boy, Theo Decker, who, unbelievably, and in a rather dramatic and Dickensian fashion, loses his mother and who is thus set adrift into the world.
The book begins and ends with a sense of mystery, both literal and figurative.
The book commences in obscurity, with a remembered dream by Theo of his mother, whose death signals the pivotal scene of the story. From the first sentences it's clear that a fascinating puzzle is about to unfold. Filled with crystal-clear, cinematic imagery, and the carefully crafted emotional triggers of evocative auditory and olfactory descriptions, "The Goldfinch" juxtaposes these subtle details with a sudden intensity of action that shocks and captivates.
In almost Hollywood action-movie style, the big museum where Theo is enjoying an afternoon with his mother is hit by a bomb, sending the touching moment into chaos. Not only does Theo lose the most important person in his life, but he makes the inexplicable decision to steal a priceless painting in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Thus, the "Goldfinch," a Dutch masterpiece, enters the story and becomes a character in its own right, as Theo secretly holds the painting ever closer to his heart as his life begins to careen out of control.
It becomes clear that the painting — a real-world 17th century work by Carel Fabritius — represents a link to his lost mother and to the life he shared with her, as well as a symbol of the world of culture and cultivation he was accustomed to with his mother as his mentor and anchor. With her gone, he is forced, instead, to face his uncertain future with a deadbeat dad who has taken up a life in that antithesis of culture, Las Vegas.
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Here is where the story takes another dramatic turn — and it is one of many — as Theo's world shrinks inwardly and far away from the world he left behind in New York. A sense of lawlessness takes over, and he finds himself sinking deeper into a miasma of drugs, loose living and crime. All along, the knowledge that he has the small painting, wrapped up and hidden under his bed, looms in his mind like a totem, a presence that both comforts and threatens.
Tartt seems to gravitate toward stories that revolve around secrets and the inherent tensions and stresses that accompany that secrecy. Theo flounders through his teens, making one poor choice after another, and obsessively holds onto the painting, allowing the wrongness of having it in his possession to fester and to nearly destroy.
In spite of his awareness that keeping the painting is a terrible crime, Tartt describes Theo's attachment to the work of art thus: "The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that held the whole cathedral up."
It is perhaps irrelevant whether or not "The Goldfinch" is meant to be a metaphor for larger things — for life choices and manufactured familial bonds in place of loved ones who have fallen away. What is clear is that Tartt has woven a massive life story, allowing room for both the sublime and the grotesque, whether it is in art or in human nature. Her book is haunting and evokes a sense of hopelessness, yet at its heart, the small and perfect permanence of the tiny bird with a chain around its ankle inspires and energizes.
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