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Reading The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

With her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt captivates, charms and mesmerizes with potent characters, richly textured settings, and turns-of-plot: from New York City to the strange, alien-like, suburbs of Las Vegas and its star-filled, drug addled nights, then back again. Tartt begins at the end – in an Amsterdam hotel room during Christmastime when Theo Decker is twenty-seven,

It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles.

then swings the story back around to the beginning, to Theo at thirteen, at the turning point just before the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dying elderly man pushes a priceless, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, into Theo’s hands, the very painting by Carel Fabritius that Theo’s mom had been softly lecturing about, moments before the explosion,

“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them – that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from,”

Feeling horrifically sorry for the dying man, Theo takes the painting out of a sense of duty – in dazed obedience – and the painting of the tethered bird follows Theo like an albatross, or a good luck charm, for the remainder of the story. For the truth is: the dying old man, Welty, pointed Theo in the direction of his future.

Published in 2013, the book takes place in our present day, post-911 world of home-grown terrorists, high security, iPhones and texting as the preferred mode of communication. The ethereal scenes where Theo exits the ruined, white-dust and ash-covered museum read like a movie; thus, movie proposals were in the offing as the presses were still churning. Theo climbs through the blinding debris, as if ascending certain realms of Purgatorio, into a rebirth – into chaos.

Counselors, teachers, and even the eccentric, Park Avenue Barbour family fails to get to the core of Theo. Enter Hobie: the one stabilizing, unlikely anchor of Theo’s life. As if coming home to a loving grandparent, a bit musty and given to “maunder on” – wistful yet eloquent, somehow refined, Hobie becomes the only person who can coax Theo into eating some food, for example, and to have a “normal conversation.” The initial meeting of Theo and Hobie in Hobie’s curiosity shop in the Village, like so much of Tartt’s prose, transfixes the reader with anticipation and resonates with such an underlying sadness – then swings around with a mirthful quip or observation.

The Las Vegas chapters are suffused with Boris, one of the most interesting and likable characters in the book. A boy who has traveled, Boris speaks Russian with an oddly incongruous, Australian accent. He is the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist. Boris, not surprisingly, admires Theo’s flashy yet untrustworthy dad, but anyone’s dad would be better than Boris’. Both Mr. Decker and his little firecracker, waitress girlfriend, Xandra, topple in and out of the house like an itinerant circus act – absent-minded, vacant, yet always entertaining. Still, Theo is often alone in the house when he is not ravaging himself on drugs with Boris.

I sat downstairs rigidly for an hour or so with War of The Worlds on but the sound off, listening to the crash of the icemaker and the rattle of wind in the patio umbrella.

Theo retains an habitual love of classic movies – another endearing thread that keeps him connected with his mother. He reads Poe and a lot of Russian literature, including The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Boris, still somewhat naive to American culture, echoes Theo’s obsession as if all American teenagers should love watching old movies and reading Russian novels.

The adolescent bond has been established and made genuine by a female writer who seems to have lived as a teenage boy in some other life. The terse dialogue, the philosophical rants, companionable silences, flashes of insight, fraternal punch-outs, sexual blurriness, they seem to love each other most when spitting the words fuck you!

When Theo returns to New York City, the streets are more Dickensian than ever, especially in the chapter where Theo glimpses Mr. Barbour ranting to himself in the gloaming, rush-hour mayhem near Central Park. Tartt’s cast-of-characters emerge and reappear out of the past. The grown-up Theo, in his twenties, replaces the teenage boy. If he carries a burden of self-absorption, as he carries the explosion “in his body,” then learning of the Barbours’ family tragedy brings Theo out of himself. He cares about Mrs. Barbour, though something of an ice-queen, she is at least steadfast, reliably cultured and ultimately human.

In the process of being whisked away to Amsterdam by Boris and drawn into the underworld of stolen, precious art, Theo has what he calls his Conversion. Much is resolved in Tartt’s generous, riveting prose, even though both Theo and Boris have been rendered colossal drug addicts.

Pippa, the girl who represents a connection to life when it had some semblance of normalcy, remains undeniably, the love of Theo’s life. What has been labeled obsessive and not possible is love: Theo’s pure love for Pippa. This is the wonderful force upon which all hope hinges. Because, though life is short and mostly a miserable chaos, more Of Human Bondage than The Catcher in the Rye, love and art have sustained this protagonist in strange and mystifying ways.

A Goldfinch Illustration

Image via New York TimesImage via Vanity Fair

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Faces in Literature

donna tartt times photo
Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Goldfinch, in 2013. A Southern writer, she is originally from Greenwood Mississippi. The Goldfinch takes place, not in the American South, but in NYC, Las Vegas and Amsterdam ~ and it is an amazing story!

(Book review to follow.)

Photo via The Times UK