I’m staring at a 771-page novel, replete with sticky notes I’ve placed to mark passages of interest, and I don’t know where to begin. The Goldfinch is an epic tale encompassing themes of loss, fate, friendship, family, love, accountability, and the nature of art. This is a novel for which future teachers of American literature will assign very specific essay topics to their students, such as “Describe Andy’s relationship with water and how it correlates to his relationship with his family,” or “What makes art valuable, and how do Hobie’s ‘changeling’ furniture pieces challenge this idea?” This novel been described as “Dickensian,” and while I wouldn’t put Tartt in quite the same category as my favorite author, the echoes of Dickens are there—an orphan trying to find his way, a heightened awareness of class structure, seemingly endless strings of tragedy—but with a decidedly modern sensibility. Protagonist Theo Decker alternatively reminds me of Pip from Great Expectations and Holden Caufield.
The Goldfinch opens with Theo in a hotel in Amsterdam describing how he dreamed about his mother. The reader learns from the first pages that Theo’s mother is dead, and he marks the incident of her death as the turning point in his life: “Things would have been better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated and congenial life.” From here, the story flashes back to the protagonist at age 13, when he and his mother stop in the Metropolitan Museum of Art on their way to a meeting with one of his teachers. While viewing a painting of a goldfinch by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, Theo sees an old man and a girl whom he presumes to be the man’s grandaughter and eyes them with interest. When his mother goes to another gallery to take one more look at a painting, an explosion, later revealed to be a terrorist bomb, rocks the museum. Waking up in the gallery, Theo again sees the old man who, in his delirium, tells Theo to take the painting of the goldfinch (half buried among debris) off the wall, and gives him a ring with the vague instruction to take it to “Hobart and Blackwell.” In his own confusion and shock, Theo wanders out among the chaos with both items in his possession. End Chapter 1.
The remainder (bulk) of the novel follows Theo as he adjusts to life without his mother and into early adulthood. His journey takes him to stay with old school friend Andy Barbour, whose wealthy family lives in a lush apartment on Park Avenue; to Las Vegas to live with the profligate father who had previously abandoned his son and wife and who makes his living gambling; back to New York where kind-hearted James Hobart (“Hobie), partner in the aforementioned Hobart and Blackwell, takes the lost boy under his wing and into his home. Through every move and every temporary shelter, Theo keeps the painting with him, hidden, yet possessing it, a link to beauty and to his mother. The painting is the through line in the tale, the existence of which is both terrifying to Theo, who has long passed the point where he can return it without consequence, and comforting. Keeping it wrapped and hidden in a pillowcase, he rarely even looks at it, but cherishes its presence: “Even when I couldn’t see it I liked knowing it was there for the depth and solidity it gave things, the reinforcement to infrastructure, an invisible, bedrock rightness that reassured me just as it was reassuring to know that far away, whales swam untroubled in Baltic waters and oaks in arcane time zones chanted ceaseless for the salvation of the world.”
In some ways the painting is a substitute for the mother Theo lost, the anchor he clings to through the tumult. Or perhaps it’s a substitute for Pippa, the girl he first spied in the museum and who, having survived the explosion, comes back into Theo’s life when he shows up on Hobie’s door step. Every character, for better or worse, leaves their impression on Theo, from the wealthy but initially aloof Mrs. Barbour, who eventually comes to think of Theo maternally, to Boris, the Ukrainian teen whom Theo meets in Las Vegas and who becomes his only real friend. If there is a fault with this novel, perhaps there is just too much? Too much tragedy? Too much angst? Just reading about Boris and Theo’s escapades in Las Vegas left me feeling hung over at times. The relationship Theo develops with Andy’s younger sister Kitsy probably could have been edited out, if we were looking to cut words. Towards the end, Tartt waxes a bit too philosophical for my taste: after almost 800 pages she should have had more faith in her readers than to feel the need to spell out her perspective (as in when Boris says, “Maybe sometimes–the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?”).
But overall, the novel worked for me based on the beauty of the writing (something I’ve been missing in many of the books I’ve read lately) and the depth of its characters. Theo is a deeply flawed human, and 20% of me despises him for the way he puts Hobie at risk, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for him to find tranquility. Additionally, the exploration of the nature of art (is art worthwhile if we keep it hidden?) and the value of art (are objects simply as valuable as whatever people are willing to pay for them?), gave me plenty of fodder for my own musings. This is a long novel, but it’s mostly lovely, thoughtful, and worthwhile.