The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch has become one of the most talked-about novels I can recall in recent years, especially now, coming off its Pulitzer win. It’s the most successful, post-9/11 fiction where an actual experience of terrorism is portrayed that I’ve read — though since the book suggests that its bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art replaces 9/11 as the major event in NYC (I can’t recall any mention of the WTC), this gives room for an exploration of the notion of such trauma without treading on the inviolable ground of real-life events.

Most reviews I read made Dickensian comparisons, perhaps with a garnish of Salinger, which rings true. The Goldfinch is seriously epic, but the hundreds (and hundreds) of pages mostly fly by as it weaves among a cast of clever characters. The heart of the book is Theo, half-orphaned in the bombing, who in the concussive aftermath walks off with this little painting of a goldfinch, which was painted in 1654 not long before the artist Carel Fabritius died in an explosion. The coincidence of its survival here becomes a clever piece of fictional detail for the character of the painting in the novel. The book’s view of NYC is entirely Manhattan-centric, heavily polished with an Upper East Side propriety, such that even the mysterious downtown address Theo receives early on takes on an exotic air. His grief-induced misdeeds are reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, even if the guilt over his hooligan activities before his mother’s death provides such fertile ground for his self-blame later on. Instead of him seeming to barely catch a break, as a Dickens character might, he tends to be partially responsible for his bad luck, despite his best intentions.

While the book is rooted firmly in NYC, a lengthy part of it involves Theo’s reunion with his previously absent, alcoholic father in a half-abandoned, suburban Las Vegas housing development, during which he makes friends with a Russian–Ukrainian named Boris who is similarly neglected by his single father. This section seems unnecessarily and extensively detailed in regards to their drug-fueled shenanigans, except that Boris’s eventual return becomes so key later on, and their almost brotherly connection influences much of what happens after that reunion. But it’s a relief once Theo departs Vegas and returns to NYC and the narrative pace picks up — despite his improbably uneventful, cross-country Greyhound ride… even though that clearly leads to less words to read. The Amsterdam-based denouement and its aftermath, where the philosophy of the book is discussed in lengthy detail between characters, drags the ending down considerably. Tying up major plot points through dialogue is rarely a striking way to finish an epic novel.

The question of the book is not really why Theo took the painting with him when he left the museum, but why he never tries to return it. There’s certainly a connection to his mother, who was an art historian at heart and particularly in love with Dutch masters. But by the middle of the story he doesn’t even allow himself to look at it and revel in its golden glow, so it’s no longer a means for Theo to banish some of the darkness in his life, even if possessing it brings its own darkness — which ties in so neatly with the themes of addiction that pepper various characters’ lives. In the end Boris suggests that people can do bad things for good reasons, or at least good things can result from initially bad actions. In the scope of a book where terrorism is involved, this seems like a risky justification, but perhaps appropriate. There are a lot of interesting thoughts here about art and authenticity.

I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

more from this author