“The Goldfinch” is a delirious bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, that centers on Theo Decker, his theft of Fabritius’ masterpiece, and the unrelenting wheels of fate. It is a work 11 years in the making and might be called Donna Tartt’s magnum opus. I found myself intrigued and repulsed in equal parts.
Theo’s mother dies in a terrorist attack while on her way to a parent-teacher conference about her son’s recent suspension. Theo finds himself unmoored, surrounded by people who either feel obligated to help him or who are paid to do so. He finds little happiness with his temporary guardians, the Barbours, though he hopes to find a permanent home with them. All the while, he’s sick with sadness and guilt, not only blaming himself for his mother’s death but knowing he’s stolen something of great value: The Goldfinch by Fabritius. He hides it in a pillowcase and worries about what will happen to him if someone finds out he took it. After spending a year in Las Vegas with his father, Theo returns to New York and finds a home with an antiques restorer, Hobie. He’s the business partner of a man who also died in the museum accident.
The novel then skips the ensuing eight years, showing Theo as a young man. He partners with Hobie to sell furniture. However, unbeknownst to the older man, Theo swindles and cheats many of his customers, offering Hobie’s own creations as genuine originals. He makes a ton of money, which melts away in the face of Theo’s drug habit, but catches the attention of a professional con man, Lucius Reeve.
Theo Decker is a thoroughly unredeemable character. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or lack of them, and instead blames fate and bad luck for his general apathy and ennui. In the beginning, I pitied Theo—a young boy who’d lost his mother. What’s not to pity? And, yet, he begins the novel with a lie: “Things would’ve turned out better if my mother had lived.” No, I don’t think so. His dad’s sudden departure had elicited pity from his teachers, who allowed him to turn in work late. Theo took full advantage of this, and instead of applying himself, skipped class to hang out with friends. He probably would not have ended up in the fraud antiques business, but he would’ve been doing something as equally contemptuous.
His thought processes are sublime. Tartt’s descriptions and details border on stream of consciousness, and though I’ve never done drugs, I now feel as if I know what that’s like:
The glue we sniffed came on with a dark, mechanical roar, like the windy rush of propellers: engines on! We fell back on the bed into darkness, like skydivers tumbling backwards out of a plane, although—that high, that far gone—you had to be careful with the bag over your face or else you were picking dried blobs of glue out of your hair and off the end of your nose when you came to. Exhausted sleep, spine to spine, in dirty sheets that smelled of cigarette ash and dog, Popchik belly-up and snoring, subliminal whispers in the air blowing from the wall vents if you listened hard enough. Whole months passed where the wind never stopped, blown sand rattling against the windows, the surface of the swimming pool wrinkled and sinister-looking.
Descriptions like these are what makes Tartt’s style gripping—there are almost no full sentences. It’s just one little detail after another after another, and before you know it you’re seeing things in the book as you would actually see them in real life: little details that form a whole picture with your brain processing one piece at a time.
By far the most captivating passages have nothing to do with the plot but with antique restoration:
Soon he was teaching me how to lay down the red on white ground for gilding: always a little of the gold rubbed down at the point where the hand would naturally touch, then a little dark wash with lampblack rubbed in interstices and backing…And if, post-lampblack, the gilt was still too bright and raw-looking, he taught me to scar it with a pinpoint—light, irregular scratches of different depth—and then to ding it lightly with a ring of old keys before reversing the vacuum cleaner over it to dull it down.
However, I found the most prominent themes to be the most disturbing and the weakest parts of the novel. Namely the inability to change anything: ourselves, outcomes to our actions, our lives, other people, and our situations. Everything is fated and unchangeable. In context of the novel, this explains Theo’s self-destructive tendencies and his complete and utter inability to control himself. Tartt leaves us with the notion that bad deeds may inadvertently produce good results (of course the opposite is true as well) and that a love of art connects humanity by lifting us up into a realm between reality and whatever lies beyond. The last portion of the novel is a delightfully sprawling mess of philosophical notions and cynical worldviews, which is a natural conclusion for a novel that borders on delirium in some of its more powerful parts.
In conclusion, I’m sad to say I didn’t really like “The Goldfinch.” I wanted to like it. I found myself unable to empathize with Theo and so much of the story’s actual resolution occurs off-screen while Theo is sick in an Amsterdam hotel. However, it is a must-read. The painstaking attention to detail, the perfect rendering of thought process, and the characterizations are enough for me to recommend it. And, of course, it did win the Pulizer Prize in fiction. The themes contained within “The Goldfinch” turned me off. Fate is a man-made construct, a convenient excuse for people who’d rather not take responsibility for how their lives have turned out. To read through a narrator who hated life, and the idea of life so much was almost more than I could bear. Still, it took me to places mentally and emotionally I very rarely go, which makes “The Goldfinch” a modern masterpiece.
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