If you came seeking ornithological knowledge about the titular bird, you may click here.
I came by my copy of The Goldfinch dishonestly. I helped a friend carry some boxes at the bookstore she works at, and, in return, she said I could help myself to any galley copy left on the staff bookshelf. I recognized Donna Tartt’s name and thought, why does that sound familiar?, and took it home. Later I heard one of her co-workers was furious at the loss. I hadn’t even known it was one of the most anticipated releases of the year, it just sort of felt like a book that belonged in my home.
Later, I was texting with another friend who had received a galley copy for legitimate work reasons. We were talking about how much we loved it and she said, “It would be great to read a review by someone who has a real art history education.” “Yeah!” I texted back. Several days passed before I realized she was describing me.
The Goldfinch is the third book by Donna Tartt, a name I would later realize I recognized from Nicole’s Classic Trash article, links I had breezed past on my Twitter newsfeed about the return of a reclusive author, heated discussions about fantasy movie castings clogging up my Tumblr dashboard. She has the find of fevered fan base you only find around artists who don’t produce very much art. Loyal, defensive, and agitated, the long separation just makes them more intense.
I wanted to be that intense. I (secretly, quickly) purchased her other two books online and paid extra for the shipping. I didn’t have to wait the ten years between The Secret History and The Little Friend or the eleven years between The Little Friend and The Goldfinch. Soon, I comforted myself thinking soon no one would know that I hadn’t been part of the Donna Tartt Fan Club since the very beginning.
The Goldfinch is–let’s get this out of the way–one of the best books I’ve ever read. Certainly one of the best works of fiction, if we’re separating our love into categories; definitely one of the most fevered and intense love I’ve felt for a work of art in a long, long time. The Secret History was incredible, yes, and I loved every weird chilling word – for more on the chill of The Secret History you must read Sarah Nicole Prickett’s essay on Hazlitt here. But The Goldfinch is something altogether different for me. When I went back to re-read it for this article, I thought I would find I had been wrong; that the preciousness of the precocious child narrator would have morphed into something from a Jonathan Safran Foer novel, or that the unrequited loves would leave me cold. No. The second reading just made me more loyal, more defensive, more agitated. How could something so beautiful hurt this much?
Here’s Tartt describing her main character looking at the titular painting, Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (1654):
“…almost immediately its glow enveloped me, something almost musical, an internal sweetness that was inexplicable beyond a deep, blood-rocking harmony of rightness, the way your heart beat slow and sure when you were with a person you felt safe with and loved.”
Here’s Tartt on grief:
“I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater.”
In some parallel version of New York, in some strange time (a reference to a DVD of Jet Li’s Unleashed, believe it or not, puts the opening action around the year 2005; a throwaway comment about the story happening fourteen years earlier makes the book’s present appear to be 2019, although another comment at the end of the book suggests that the climatic events happened several years earlier, so maybe 2016? The Secret History shares this tendency to feel both past and future), a right-wing domestic terrorist organization has planted a bomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For a variety of inexplicable, all-too-fateful reasons, our narrator, Theo Decker, is at the Met with his mother on a rainy weekday morning. Theo is watching a girl, straining to find about more about her as she moves through the museum with an older man. After the bomb goes off, he has a strange interaction with the man, who begs him to take The Goldfinch paintingaway from the wreckage, presses a family ring into his palm, and then dies. His mother was in another room of the museum and also dies.
From there, The Goldfinch takes Theo through the home of a wealthy friend and his cold, but ultimately loving, parents; the antique shop where the old man worked and where he forms a bond with the remaining owner, Hobart (Hobie); meets the girl who caught his eye and falls totally, completely in love for life; to Las Vegas, where his failed actor and formerly mean drunk father wrenches him away, and where a friendship with an expat Russian either sets him on the course he was destined for or away from the life he was meant to have. The whole time, the painting remains the cloud over Theo’s head, as the parallel universe version of Interpol searches for what would be one of the greatest losses in the history of art.
The book is pure Dickens, through and through, like how Theo introduces himself to Hobie, the antiques dealer who comes to be his true father figure: “I’m Theo. Theodore Decker. Everybody calls me Theo. I live uptown.” When his friend Boris from Las Vegas, returning as an adult, finally meets Hobie, Hobie properly compares him to the Artful Dodger. The twists and turns of fate, the kind that lead Oliver Twist to the home he was always meant to have, make perfect sense in this parallel New York universe; after all, why wouldn’t an antiques dealer know or know of every rich white person in the city? The obsession with a girl out of his league, stolen away from him by an embittered female relative and than lesser male suitors, is pure Great Expectations - she’s even named Pippa, perhaps as homage to Dicken’s male narrator Pip.
Of course, being a Donna Tartt novel, it’s less Great Expectations by Charles Dickens than the Great Expectations movie adaptation starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow (a terrible movie that I love beyond any reason) – all sly digs at the contemporary art world and Fifth Avenue collector culture. There are some references to iPhones and even Juicy Couture, but for the most part, the book hovers somewhere between a moderately distant past and an almost relatable present. What makes The Goldfinch feel like a longing for air underwater is the way Tartt writes so expertly about belonging, or more specifically, the experience of not belonging. (read more)