The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 784 pp)
Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and is a graduate of Bennington College. She is the author of the novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, which have been translated into thirty languages.
In Appreciation of Beauty
The creative endeavor represents a fascinating aspect of humanity. We all, more or less, respect aesthetics. Some might not have the ability to discern and deconstruct art, but at a basic level we all hold the ability to say, “That is beautiful.” Art transforms us. We value it and pass it down from generation to generation. There’s even a philosophy of aesthetics that suggests art possesses mystical capabilities of conversation between centuries—that in some way the artist uses art to communicate deeply held belief to the viewer.
Art, then, represents more than creativity in words, notes, or color; it can become a physical manifestation of a person. It can take on the pain and joy of situations. Perhaps you’ve experienced this? A joyful moment at a specific time in life funneled through a movie you saw with someone you loved? Pain about the loss of a friend channeled through a song on the radio? In these instances, art upholds its mystical ability to communicate things deep in our psyche.
And so it is with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The narrative focuses itself on the tragic-yet-joyful life of Theodore Decker and his relationship with Fabritius’ masterpiece, The Goldfinch. Tartt channels Dostoyevsky in this sweeping narrative about the nature of art, creativity, and the beauty of shared relationship in a brutal world.
To say anything about this book’s narrative is to announce a spoiler. Although, it’s hard to call it a spoiler when it happens so early in a book. So consider the last sentence a warning. In many ways, The Goldfinch is a book in reverse—a narrative where the climax occurs right away and the remaining 700 pages act as a response to this crux.
With all the warnings out of the way, Theo’s life changes dramatically on day while visiting a New York museum. Enjoying Dutch masterpieces with his mother, the two split as Theo’s attention focuses on an attractive girl around his age. In this moment, disaster happens. An explosion. A terrorist act. When Theo emerges from a concussed blackout, he tries to help the girl’s guardian. Amongst bloody gasps, Theo believes the guardian is encouraging to take Fabritius’ The Goldfinch for safekeeping.
This action sets the stage for the rest of the book as Theo seeks to understand what happened during the explosion, what it means for his family, and what he should do with the most beautiful painting he has ever seen.
Dark and Light
With The Goldfinch detailing the next 15-20 years of Theo’s life, the reader dives into the psyche and development or a person so shunted by a seminal event. Theo’s never the same:
“But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead” (93).
In fact, Tartt deliberately positions Theo in a way that allows him to inhabit the classic “dark” and “light” of many famous Russian characters. In his turmoil, Theo faces excruciating dreams:
“Sometimes, in the night, I woke up wailing. The worst thing about the explosion was how I carried it in my body—the heat, the bone-jar and slam of it. In my dreams, there was always a light way out and a dark way out. I had to go the dark way, because the bright way was hot and flickering with fire. But the dark way was where the bodies were” (280-281).
Much like Dostoyesky, Tartt recognizes the good and evil of the world and the frail balance between the two residing in each human being. Theo is a compelling character—someone for which you root. But he has his flaws as well evidenced in his insistence on walking through the dark and leaving some bodies behind.
In many ways, Theo embodies the naïve goodness of Prince Myshkin and the crushing guilt of Raskolnikov. Perhaps Tartt even uses the name Theo to pay homage to the great Russian novelist.
What’s keeping Theo together and simultaneously tearing him apart is the beauty of art—the inexpressible joy and sadness communicated through a bird 450 years dead. In The Goldfinch, Tartt uses art as the foundation, the centering piece of life. She recognizes the depth art gives life and the way it unites people.
If you enjoy tension and a masterfully crafted story, The Goldfinch is for you.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5