My son, Connor, purchased The Goldfinch in hardcover with his own money when it first came out. He read it avidly, misplaced it for a while, and took to reading it, a little at a time, whenever we visited Indigo. Eventually it turned up (but by then it was out in paperback and he’d purchased another copy) and he finished it and talked about it for days.
The Goldfinch is not my first kick at the Donna Tartt can. Like Connor, I have read her two previous novels: her 1992 debut, The Secret History, a compelling literary page-turner which has stayed with me for years and which I recommend to everyone and The Little Friend, a slow-moving southern gothic. When my friend Karen chose The Goldfinch as her Facebook summer book club read, I knew I had to participate. For one thing, the novel is huge – 771 pages – and I knew I’d need uninterrupted time to finish it. Also, I flaked out on last summer’s epic, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and I needed to redeem myself.
Despite its accolades (The Goldfinch was the 2104 Pulitzer Prize winner and was (almost) universally praised by critics and authors) the novel isn’t without its detractors. Some critics wonder whether it’s deserving of being called Dickensian. In her 2014 Vanity Fair article, “It’s Tartt – But is it Art?” Evgenia Peretz quotes novelist and critic Francine Prose’s assessment that “for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language.” It’s hard to tell whether the vitriol for the author and the book (often in equal measure) is merely sour grapes. Perestz is correct, though, when she concedes that “No novel gets uniformly enthusiastic reviews, but the polarized responses to The Goldfinch lead to the long-debated questions: What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?”
Well, that would be you. And me. And Connor. And while this review – any of my reviews, really – won’t be on par with reviews found in well-respected magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review I do believe that, like any other reader on the planet, my assessment (as subjective as it might be) is valid. Consider that my disclaimer.
Theo Decker is just thirteen when he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to see an exhibition of the Dutch masters, including The Goldfinch, a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which Mrs. Decker claims is “the first painting I ever really loved.”
The day is remarkable and horrific for Theo because after his mother wanders off to the gift shop there is an explosion which kills her and which also precipitates an act of thievery which informs Theo’s life for the next fourteen years.
The Goldfinch has been described as a bildungsroman – a word which was unfamiliar to me and therefore had to look up. It means “a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.”
The bulk (and I use that word without irony) of the book is spent watching Theo implode – first while living with the Barbours, wealthy parents of his childhood friend, Andy. When his deadbeat father turns up, Theo goes off to Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend Xandra. There he meets Boris, another disenfranchised youth. The two spend their days cuffing school and getting high. Eventually, Theo makes his way back to New York City where he moves in with Hobie, an antique furniture restorer. The one constant in Theo’s life (besides his predilection for self-destruction via alcohol and drugs) is the painting of the goldfinch, which is his only real remaining connection to his mother.
Theo is not particularly likable. I don’t think that matters, actually. Boris shouldn’t be likable either, but I did like him. Quite a lot. I loved Hobie the best, for which Connor berates me. “Why does everyone like Hobie so much? He’s boring and spineless.” Maybe it’s the parent thing; he stepped up when he had no reason and he was unwaveringly supportive of Theo, even when he had every reason to kick him to the curb. Despite the novel’s insular first-person perspective, I felt as though I knew all the characters in this book. And if Theo seems just a tad precocious, chalk it up to the fact that he is setting the events down fourteen years after they’ve happened. He’s an adult, much like Scout Finch, looking back.
“Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” he says. But I wonder if that’s true because he also admits that “I’d been in trouble at school for a while.” Either way, the death of Theo’s mother sets him on a rather arduous and painful journey of self-discovery where ultimately he discovers that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
Is Tartt’s world view really this grim? It’s hard to say. If we really spent any time thinking about it, even the most optimistic of us would have to admit that Theo might be on to something when he says:
This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order, Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.
And if life is just a slow (but not that slow – which is also disconcerting), painful decline to the grave, what can possible sustain us? What gives life its meaning? In his article “Why Poetry is Necessary” Roger Housden argues that “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving.”
Boris, as reprehensible as he might seem to some readers, seems to at least understand that the world is not black and white and that “Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?…As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.”
This is a big ideas book. Some readers might argue that the final twenty or so pages is exposition and something of a cheat. I wondered if we might have gotten there, say, 200 pages sooner, because I liked what Tartt has to say. I liked Boris’s attempt to disabuse Theo of the notion that the world can be boiled down to either pure good or pure bad. He understands that “the world is much stranger than we know or can say.” Theo, comes at least, to recognize that
It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.
I loved The Goldfinch. And I also think the book is bloated and slow and sometimes the punctuation drove me nuts. It is flawed, no question, but maybe – in some ways – the book mirrors life. Life is big and messy and random; sometimes all the pieces don’t fit; sometimes, unexpectedly, there is the “heat-shock of believing. for only a moment, that you might just have what could never be yours.”
There is also a little of Gatsby in this novel, the notion that we “we beat on, boats against the current.”
I will carry The Goldfinch with me for a long time.