‘Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life’.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Pg.7
Donna Tartt’s third, and highly anticipated, novel opens with an event that rocks Theodore Decker’s life. Within the first few pages Theo’s mother, an art-loving single parent, is killed by a terrorist bomb in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There to see the famous Goldfinch painting by Carel Fabritius – who similarly died young in a gunpowder explosion destroying the majority of his paintings – Theo doesn’t realise just how entwined his life will become with Fabritius’ masterpiece. At the moment of the explosion Theo is obsessed with a young red-headed girl he sees in the exhibition with her uncle. Separated from his mother, in a different room, he miraculously survives the earth-shattering explosion only to find himself as the sole witness to old Uncle Welty’s death. Although the red-head is nowhere to be seen he stays by Welty’s side, listening to him as he declines into incoherent speech, waiting until his last breath before he tries to find his way out of the museum. However, the old man has entrusted him with a ring and an address, placing him along a path of events that will take 700 pages to recount.
The death of his mother, at the tender age of thirteen, affects Theo deeply in more ways than one. Left homeless, he is forced to name an adult he knows who may be able to take him in until social services can get in touch with his deadbeat, good for nothing, father who deserted him and his mother almost a year before the explosion. For some reason Theo remembers his old childhood friend, Andy, whom he hasn’t talked to in a while, and names the Barbours as his guardians. It is during these first few weeks of adjustment that Theo is introduced to the wealthy, Park Avenue lifestyle, which is at a complete remove to his old life. The Goldfinch, then, begins to resemble a Dickensian bildungsroman, not dissimilar to Great Expectations. Yet, instead of the pull of Stasis House and Miss Havisham’s charge, Estella, Theo is haunted by the address Welty gave him and the young red-headed girl, Pippa. Finally taking the plunge, he travels down to Greenwich Village and is confronted with an old curiosity shop full of antique furniture. Reunited with Pippa, whom he feels he has a strong connection with after both experiencing the trauma of the explosion, Theo returns Welty’s ring to his business partner, Hobie – a kindly gentleman who welcomes Theo’s presence in his life.
However, Theo’s life changes dramatically as his father comes rocking back into town with girlfriend, Xandra, in tow. Whisking him away to the ‘Carnival colours, giant clown heads and XXX signs’ of Las Vegas, Theo falls into a lifestyle of petty theft and drug use with his Ukranian friend, Boris.
‘I felt rotten. Dead butterfly floating on the surface of the pool. Audible machine hum. Drowned crickets and beetles swirling in the plastic filter baskets. Above, the setting sun flared gaudy and inhuman, blood-red shelves of cloud that suggested end-times footage of catastrophe and ruin; detonations on Pacific atolls, wildlife running before sheets of flame’.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Pg.268
This quote pretty much sums up Theo’s time in Las Vegas – one big hang over in the middle-of-nowhere-desert – and Tartt’s descriptions are so vivid and particular that I felt hung-over just reading it. Although we are taken further away from the Dickensian bildungsroman, Tartt drives us deeper into modern-day America where ‘We don’t hit women in America’, ‘No. Americans just persecute smaller countries that believe different from them’ (Theo and Boris, pg.252). Without giving too much away, Las Vegas is a crucial part of Theo’s formation as a character. Despite the hazy and skewed recollections of this period in his life, Las Vegas – the events that took place, the friendships he made and the intimate bond that forms between Theo and Fabritius’ Goldfinch – have a long-lasting impact on him.
Earlier in the novel, when Theo’s mother is talking about The Goldfinch painting, she describes it as follows:
“Well the Dutch invented the microscope”, she said. “They were jewelers, grinders of lenses. They want it all as detailed as possible because even the tiniest things mean something. Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life – a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple – the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last – it’s all temporary. Death in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. Maybe you don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer – there it is”.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Pg.23-4
Tartt’s prose is so carefully constructed and detailed that, like The Goldfinch painting, the most minuscule things mean something. In over 700 pages Tartt manages to load every event, every character and every speech with meaning. Characters we meet at the beginning reappear with greater significance. Every sudden, traumatic experience forces the plot in the direction of Theo’s current predicament in Amsterdam at the beginning of this tale, told in first-person retrospect. It truly is a masterpiece of literary invention and one deserving of the accolades it has received (and may yet receive). I have no doubt that I will pick this book up again and again, finding new discoveries that I didn’t acknowledge on first reading.
I know some people have found the ending of The Goldfinch to be disappointing and that it could have ended perhaps 50 pages sooner, but I truly loved it. I found that the last few pages really summed up all the major themes that layered this novel, illuminating the concepts of love, identity and fate, linking it all with the miracle survival of Fabritius’ masterpiece, The Goldfinch:
‘And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, 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.
And – I would argue as well – all love’.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Pg.770
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch reminds us of the important role art has to play in our lives – how it can astound us, how it can create meaning in our lives and, most importantly, how it can save us. I thoroughly enjoyed The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt is probably one of my favourite new discoveries in a long while. I am now onto my second Tartt book, The Secret History, her first novel written 22 years ago. She sure knows how to capture my imagination.