The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt’s third novel and is winning a great deal of critical accolades, including one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review. In fact, the NYT review was actually written by none other than that master of fiction himself, Stephen King. But what really induced me to pick up the book was a friend of mine, whose literary tastes I respect highly, posted some comments about the novel on Facebook. In truth, the comments were mixed, but this is a busy person, who is not a Facebook “whore,” so my interpretation was that there is something striking about this book worth looking in to.
The Goldfinch follows about 10-15 years in the life of a character named Theodore Decker. At age 13, Theo is the victim of a fictional terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which takes the life of his single mother and, through an odd series of events, leaves him in possession of a priceless painting from the Dutch master Carel Frabritius, The Goldfinch.
Theodore is taken in by the wealthy family of a classmate friend, until his absentee father locates him and manages to obtain custody and brings him to Las Vegas to live. His father is an addict of many sorts and his primary interest in Theo is to obtain caretaking money from a trust fund, and essentially abandons his son to his own devices. Theo forms a lifelong friendship with a Russian immigrant named Boris, who has also been severely neglected by his father, to the point of near starvation at times. Theo’s life rapidly transforms into a chemically-induced fog of wild adventures, missteps, pointless relationships, and aimless wanderings, with the painting serving as as sort of muse for him.
I have to admit that normally I am impatient with books, however highly acclaimed, that have the central theme of a young character making a series of bad life choices—for example The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. This was not the case with The Goldfinch, and despite being nearly 800 pages in length, I found it an extremely quick and absorbing read. With this offering, Donna Tartt has firmly established herself as a truly phenomenal storyteller. The Goldfinch was also different, however, perhaps because one almost felt that in many instances Theo really had no choice and could find no better path.
The painting is a metaphor for Theo’s life- that of a bird chained to a perch, unable to fly, and resigned to its fate. His quest is for an understanding of the nature of the chain, and his stated belief is that is lies within the constraints of social responsibilities and his mistrust of his soaring desires.
“What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–?” … “If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away?” … ”Or— like Boris—is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
What Theo fails to recognize and Boris is unable to teach him is the true distinction between the two of them. While Theo views his passions and motivations as a curse, Boris understands what a true gift it is to actually want something, to have passion and motivation—therein the chain is truly immaterial.