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 painting away 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)
The Secret History was a story about an upwardly mobile teenager, Richard, ashamed of his humble origins and desperately trying to catch up with his cultured, educated, and possibly pure evil classmates. The book is all satire, pure undergrad lols: at one point, the leader of the group says this about a man’s death: “I mean, this man was not Voltaire.” It’s like Less Than Zero, the other satire about spoiled undergrads that came out of Bennington from Tartt’s classmate and friend Bret Easton Ellis (The Secret History is dedicated to him), but with stakes you actually give a shit about.
The Goldfinch, by contrast, feels completely sincere. It could have easily become a satire of antique collectors and contemporary con men, but instead, it’s a slow, thoughtful story that touches on concepts like beauty, art, ownership, family, and of course, being the perpetual outsider. Theo never really belongs anywhere: not on the Upper East Side, not as juvenile delinquent in the desert, not in his own relationships. His accidental theft of the painting keeps him guarded and paranoid, but it’s his intellectual insecurity and inferiority complexes that keeps him from truly seeing the kindness that’s been present his entire life.
A memory came back to me as I writing this: a tutorial for a political philosophy intro course, a course populated by beautiful white boys clothed in an endless parade of discreetly monogrammed wool sweaters. The TA, a big, handsome man who was kind with their endless monologues on Plato, once asked someone to define a stereotype. I raised my hand; the first and last time I would do so. “It’s a mental shortcut,” I said, softly but surely. He looked like I’d slapped him. “Yes,” he said, shocked that someone had given him the literal definition as opposed to a lecture on the nature and wrongness of stereotyping. “I’m sorry, are you studying logic? Or linguistics?” I shook my head. I had gotten the definition from a Psych 101 textbook but was too paralyzed to respond. Just those four words had taken everything I had out of me, the room felt smaller and I felt huge. But I was right. And I never forgot that feeling, the feeling of understanding what an academic was looking for and delivering exactly that.
I studied art history at the University of Toronto for about two years. I quit halfway through writing the first paper I had ever been truly excited about it: a comparison between Manet’s Olympia, one of my favourites, and the Vanessa Beecroft performance pieces of the time (I guess 2006 or 2007? My memory, like a character from a Donna Tartt novel, always feels unreliable.) The thesis was something about white bodies and black bodies, the way black women were used as props, the way our classroom lectures always focused on what Olympia’s defiant glare had to teach us but how there was somehow never time to talk about the black woman in the background of the painting holding the flowers from some john.
I found studying art history suffocating and exhilarating all at once. I loved it the way Theo’s mother is described loving her art history classes at NYU: “’pure bliss, perfect heaven,” she’d said, up to the neck in art books and poring over the same old slides (Manet, Vuillard) until her vision started to blur. (“It’s crazy,” she’d said, “but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.”) Same.
But that’s not really what the study of art history is for. Art history degrees are meant to prepare you for a lifetime of categorizing, archiving, and dismissing, I found; the program was filled with two kinds of people, loud and quiet, but I never found someone else who wasn’t sure if Jansen really knew the complete history of art, or whether our contemporary classes were really trying to be as representative of the real diversity of artists working today as they claimed. Of course, I didn’t really try as hard as I could have to find them because I was too scared to say any of this in class.
I never really dropped out, just stopped enrolling for classes. I wasn’t like my classmates. I didn’t have the money to continue, couldn’t see the point or value, and was eager to start what I now realize will be a lifelong hustle to stay in front of my school debts. But that hustle has, like Theo, led me right into the same community I would have had if I had stayed at U of T; educated, well-dressed in expert knits, brains with a seemingly bottomless capacity for references and connections that I fear I can’t keep up with.
I’ve never read Great Expectations. Or Oliver Twist. Or, for that matter, Less than Zero. I never took a class that demanded I read them; I didn’t stay in school long enough to have a professor demand that I read them, or maybe take the right classes, who knows. Everything I know is gleaned from living amongst people who know better. I know the elements of pop culture so prevalent that you don’t have to really experience the work itself to understand the dominant theme or meaning. I know Oliver Twist features a plucky orphan and a too-good-to-be-true denouement, I know Great Expectations from that terrible 1998 adaptation I love. I know just enough to feel confident throwing words like ‘Dickensian’ around and trusting that I’ll be right, but it’s always there: the belief that I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I am not educated or cultured, that I don’t belong. I had to look up the definition for denouement before I could leave this paragraph to make sure I was correct.
To have no confidence in your own thoughts is to be lost inside your brain. There is no shortcut you can trust; the smallest slip will betray your own stupidity. You’re forced to travel round and round inside yourself, checking, double-checking, and hoping someone with a university degree says your thought first as a security blanket.
For people like me, The Goldfinch is a revelation. Towards the end of the book, when Hobie compares Boris to the Artful Dodger, he says this hopeful truth: “Well you know, Dickens doesn’t tell us what happened to the Dodger. Grew up to be a respectable businessman, who knows?” There’s still hope for all of us on the margins, half in love with art and intellectual posturing and half disgusted with it. On page 641, the fifth section of the book opens with this Nietszche quote: “We have art in order not to die from the truth.” But then again, from Hobie: “Isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beaty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?”
I will not quote the last paragraph of this book here, though by now I’ve gone back and reread it so many times it’s burned into my brain, even though I want you to know it, because I want you to go back and read it yourself. I want you to read every page so that at the end, you’ve earned that last paragraph, the paragraph that made my breath quicker, my heartbeats as loud as I’ve ever heard them, knowing that I was the person she described, knowing that in some ways we all are. The Goldfinch is a book I love, declaratively, with no caveats, no intellectual safety net. No one is born the person they’re destined to become; we do it to ourselves, we let it happen to us, with the objects that define us when they come our way. We have to seek art in order to not die from the truth.
Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, The L.A. Review of Books, Hazlitt, and of course WORN, amongst others. She lives in Toronto.