Fabritius-vinkI finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch several weeks ago, but didn’t want to write to you about it right away. I wanted to step away from it for a while, and decide how to proceed next.

At 771 pages, and having won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Goldfinch will likely stand as Tartt’s magnum opus, and be the subject of dozens and dozens of incisive, insightful reviews. I don’t know the latter fact for sure, because I’ve avoided reading a single one. I’ve seen the name Dickens attached to the novel, and I’m not surprised, but I wanted to be able to offer you my very personal take on this Odyssean tale.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Goldfinch of the book’s title is a real painting―a masterwork created by the artist Carel Fabritius in 1654.

More importantly for Theo Decker, the protagonist of the novel, it’s the favourite of his mother― a single parent and an art lover―who takes him to the Metropolitan Museum to see it, to soak it up and pore over every brush stroke; wanting him to recognise its genius and to connect with it, as she does.

But Theo and his mother are also brought to the Museum on that day by the random force of a thunderstorm (which causes them to run there, to take shelter) and/or the agency of Fate (it’s up to the reader, as it is for Theo, to decide), as the mildly delinquent though brilliant thirteen year-old Theo has gotten into trouble at school and is on his way, with his mum, to meet the principal.

No spoiler alert is necessary here, because all of this happens in the very first pages of the book: a bomb explodes while Theo and his mum are at the exhibit (evoking the horror of 9/11). Theo survives. His mother is killed. And it is from this harrowing opening scene, the chaos of which is evoked with extraordinary eloquence and truth, that life as Theo has known it is blown to bits, and he is catapulted into the streets of New York City concussed, traumatized, forlorn and utterly alone. In his arms, he carries the one thing he has been able to rescue from the wreckage: Fabritius’ diminutive masterpiece, The Goldfinch.

This is where Theo’s journey to adulthood begins.

For the next 700 or so pages, Theo himself narrates what is, at its core, his journey of grief for his mother. At least that’s what it was for me, because almost immediately, as a shaken Theo swerves and stumbles home, alone, to wait in their apartment for his mother who never does return, I immediately felt the immensity of this disaster, and a visceral, protective anxiety. And the opening lyrics of a sad and heartbreaking Negro spiritual came to mind:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
A long ways from home
True believer
A long ways from home
Along ways from home

Tartt’s writing is so skillful, it is superb. Here is Theo, in the moments following his shell-shocked return to his empty home:

“After I got off the telephone, I sat very still for a long time. According to the clock on the stove, which I could see from where I sat, it was two-forty-five in the morning. Never had I been alone and awake at such an hour. The living room―normally so airy and open, buoyant with my mother’s presence―had shrunk to a cold, pale discomfort, like a vacation house in winter: fragile fabrics, scratchy sisal rug, paper lamp shades from Chinatown and the chairs too little and light. All the furniture seemed spindly, poised at a tiptoe nervousness. I could feel my heart beating,hear the clicks and hisses of the large elderly building slumbering around me. Everyone was asleep. Even the distant horn-honks and the occasional rattle of trucks out on Fifty-seventh Street seemed faint and uncertain, as lonely as a noise from another planet.

            Soon, I knew, the night sky would turn dark blue; the first tender, chilly gleam of April daylight would steal into the room. Garbage trucks would roar and grumble down the street; spring songbirds would start singing in the park; alarm clocks would be going off in bedrooms all over the city. Guys hanging off the backs of trucks would toss fat whacking bundles of the Times and the Daily News to the sidewalks outside the newsstand. Mothers and dads all over the city would be shuffling around wild-haired in underwear and bathrobes, putting on the coffee, plugging in the toaster, waking their kids up for school.

            And what would I do? Part of me was immobile, stunned with despair, like those rats that lose hope in laboratory experiments and lie down in the maze to starve.”

It’s impossible not to feel for this scared and traumatized boy, or to sense that he’s probably doomed. Everything about this boy’s life becomes, forMotherlessChild1899 the reader, what if…what if…in an endless loop of wishful thinking and a desire to turn back the clocks for him.

A motherless child is thrown into the world, and for the remainder of the novel, Donna Tartt frames him in one lonely, hazardous and hapless situation after another.

Theo’s journey takes him through the alienating hands of social services; then, temporarily, to the Park Avenue residence of the Barbours where he is greeted by his friend Andy and introduced to the sterility of life with the rich and hollow. But before Theo is able even to begin to heal and to find his footing, he is ripped away from New York City, the only home he has known (and a remaining connection to his mother), by his father, a compulsive gambler, alcoholic and drug addict, who brings him to live in Las Vegas.

Many more characters will enter and exit Theo’s life, including Kitsey, the ice queen, Hobie, Pippa at the antiques shop; and last but not least, Boris, another lost boy and loose cannon.

During his odyssey, Theo is neglected, beaten, abandoned, abused, and lied to; he lies, steals, cheats and betrays many, stumbling through the next decade of his life in a fragmented state fuelled by alcohol, Oxycontin, Vicodin, heroin, Percocets, and every other mood altering substance imaginable.

9780316055437_custom-8387e636d286aa86fc16d49b6a17f95c8558d406-s6-c30Through it all, every trace of his mother is slowly erased, except The Goldfinch.

It is difficult to say more without saying too much.

Tartt’s writing is brilliant. Masterly. Her ability to create finely realized characters and to settle them in a time and a place is extraordinary. And yet…

The novel is divided into sections, or periods of Theo’s journey. Reading them is akin to walking through a giant Museum in which some of the rooms, smaller in size, hold collections that express the comfort and melancholy of times past, while others, giant and cavernous, are stacked with such an orgy of colors and grotesque pieces that one wishes more than anything to find the exit as soon as possible. Theo’s time in Vegas is a lot like the latter. As is his time in Amsterdam, which is near the end of the novel.

There is an unevenness to the novel, as though the author’s editor was so taken by the deftness of Tartt’s writing that he or she was unable to expunge the novel’s excesses.

In the end, just as the value of The Goldfinch depends upon the appreciation of individual art lovers or collectors, so it is for the reader to decide whether the journey alongside Theo is sufficiently rewarding.



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