What better way that start this review with Stephen King’s blurb?
“The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.”
First and foremost, I’d like to thank my good friend, Stepheny Zimmerman, whose enthusiastic review and passion for The Goldfinch helped convince me to read it. I will never regret this experience, and Theo’s journey will stick with me for a long time.
I went into this expecting greatness, but partly due to some mixed reviews (more on those later,) my heart was simultaneously anxious. The fear was harboring its heathen in my gut. I was afraid of it for the same reason I’m afraid of any overtly hyped story: because the reality cannot possibly match our expectations.
Meet thirteen year old Theodore Decker, who loves his mother very much. But on that fateful day, his love for her is the last thing on his mind. Much larger things, like surviving a deadly terrorist attack, consume it instead. And delivering an age-old and priceless painting entitled, The Goldfinch.
My initial impression of the novel was the abundance of detail, both small and significant. It isn’t just verbose, Tartt’s prose is shot clean through with sensory stimuli. This Mississippi native achieves this immersive juggling act like no one I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. She has a deep understanding of fiction, alongside an equally keen perception of the human condition. She also portrays memory (a recurring theme,) with a poetlike hand, expressing its genuine-often misunderstood—truth, which is thus: our memories can’t be trusted. We remember our past as we’d prefer them to be. Or in certain situations, we can’t remember them at all.
In Theo, we see memories taking on an almost monstrous form, one which he’s loathe to acknowledge. At the same time, he’s wallowing in the past, before everything changed. Before his world was turned and shaken violently. Sometimes, he even he revels in those darkest of days, in pits of despair. But he never fools himself in believing in false truths. Those awful things actually happened.
Donna Tartt pulls this off, and she does it very well. She’s able to do this by developing an intimate friendship with Theo, by spending countless hours with him and as a result, is permitted access into his mind. We see how he perceives reality and acts upon it, both of which are shown by his internal dialogue. It’s a beautiful thing. But they also inform his fight-or-flight mentality in ways that I cannot quite fathom. I can’t put into words how she wrote said scene, let alone the mastery of it. Nine months later, my mind is still reeling, to some degree or another. I’ll never forget it, nor would I want to.
It’s best not to divulge many secrets, though. Instead, I’d like to skim over the intervening years, formerly called adolescence. Armed with his remembrances-both happy and depressing—Theo must learn to navigate the often perilous trenches of life in a world which has become drenched in premarital sex, drugs and complacency. He must learn the merits of genuine friendship, and the hardships that come with it. More than anything, he must learn to trust again, and learn how to foster friendships. One likeminded individual named Boris, an immigrant of Russia, may just hold the key to all of these things and more, if only he’d let him…but will he?
That’s easier said than done with an obstinate past and secrets to unfold. And a particularly trying case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) doesn’t help matters, either. Distrust issues and recurring nightmares complicate matters further. But there is good, too. And there is hope.
How can he possibly expect to survive such dire circumstances? Could you? Will he?
Throughout The Goldfinch, Tartt seasons it liberally with the Arts. Not just Carel Fabritius’ iconic work, but with a plethora of other artists of his time, like Egbert van der Poel and Rembrandt and, taken from more modern times, Pablo Picasso. Tartt takes her obvious passion much further, with almost casual references to Great Expectations and Walden; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Hispanic painter and muralist, Diego Rivera; Carson McCullers’The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Further yet, Silas Marner by the incomparable George Eliot, a 1948 Italian film entitled, The Bicycle Thief, as well as The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the American poet Hart Crane infamous for his method of suicide.
”We being around thee forgot to die…”
-Yone Nuguchi, Spirit Of Fuji Mountain, circa 1903
The architecture of Herengracht, Amsterdam. The music of The Velvet Underground. Yet another artist, Jan Weenix, the poetry of W.B. Yeats. I could go on, but I won’t. You get the idea.
Now, as elegant and compelling as this may sound, The Goldfinch is by no means an easy read. I almost gave it up on more than one occasion. I kept going for a couple reasons: 1.) I was fully invested in Theo’s character; 2.) I needed to know where the story was going, and how it would end; 3.) I had to know what all the hype was about, and why my friend, Stepheny, loves it as much as she does. During this time, I began to search online for articles for and against the novel. Some adamantly claimed its virtues, while others basically assured me that it was okay to throw in the towel. These both gave me hope and rendered me more anxious than ever before. As a result, I made a deal with myself. In it, I said that I’d persevere to five hundred pages in (out of seven hundred seventy-two,) and if it hadn’t gotten considerably better by then, I would let it go. Given that much time and effort, a typical novel should have enthrall the reader-any reader—by then. So I kept reading, day by day, hour by frustrating hour, week by week. Curiously, I made it just under the five hundred mark when the plot really started to pick up. By then, I pretty much couldn’t couldn’t stop thinking about it. How would it turn out? Would Theo survive? What about the fate of the supporting cast? How might they be effected? I had to know. It was a deep-set desire.
I won’t disclose how it ends, obviously. But I will say this: I was earnestly afraid of a big-big letdown. I needn’t worry though, because Tartt didn’t disappoint me one bit. What’s more, her exposition is incredibly profound and beautiful and dang near flawless. It’s sheer mastery at its finest.
“…he used to speak of how with very great painting it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost, even through copies. Even Proust—there’s a famous passage where Odette opens the door with a cold, she’s sulky, her hair is loose and undone, her skin is patchy, and Swann, who has never about her until that moment, falls in love with her because she looks like a Botticeli girl from a slightly damaged fresco. Which Proust himself only knew from a reproduction. He never saw the original, in the Sistine Chapel…”
And wrapping it up:
“That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time — so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
Like the pivotal scene that I touched on near the beginning, the last twenty of so pages knock me off of my feet still, and I cannot properly describe them. I doubt I even comprehend it fully, it’s so deep and touching. And the latter passages barely scratch the surface of their spellbinding greatness. For these few scenes alone, the novel deserved an additional star. I’m giving it four stars instead of three, which I’d held firmly in my mind for weeks, after much consideration. Thank you, Donna Tartt, for letting me see the world in a whole other light.
I can’t do it, folks. I thought I could, and at the time the additional star felt RIGHT in my heart, but in the intervening days, I’ve thought about it some more, and I must stick with a strong three stars.
Despite its mixed reception, The Goldfinch was the recipient of a score of awards, including the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2014, and was shortlisted the year before for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, amongst others. And typical of most best-sellers, Hollywood is currently in the process of adapting Theo’s journey for the silver screen. This, in itself, is controversy.
I’m still kind of at a loss for words, for thought, et al. Where exactly is the disparity? How do you explain the disconnect regarding the novel’s mass appeal, its laudatory reception? There’s a part of me that totally understands it, and another that quite simply does not get it all the hype. I cannot fathom its apparent precariousness which isn’t-for it can’t be—so random.
All things fall and are built again.