I had encountered Tartt prior to The Goldfinch a few years ago when I struggled with – and gave up on – The Secret History. Many people tell me it is worth revisiting, but I have never felt that rush to fight through the first 100 or so pages.
At 771 pages long The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the longest book I have read since Harry Potter (or one of the Song of Ice and Fire series, maybe?). The length didn’t perturb me, it doesn’t take long for Tartt’s protagonist Theodore Decker to wrench you into his mind. So visceral was my experience I felt as if Theo existed, that he was telling me his story personally. A talent that is a rare to encounter in literature. It was as if I could have put the book down and called him – were I to know his number – and he would be there in New York to answer the phone.
“It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.” Synopsis from GoodReads.
Tartt’s rich prose allow the reader to drop into her world with ease, to swim amongst its inhabitants. As with any Tartt novel, The Goldfinch is a multi-layered and deeply researched novel. Elements such as intellectualism, psychology and the deprecation of the human spirit are laced through the text. This isn’t a book that will tell you that life is great, and nothing bad will ever happen to you. If anything, it tells us what we already know; life is shit and shit things happen, but we need to take it for what it is, and enjoy it despite its hardships.
“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. 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 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.”
Throughout the novel – almost in imitation of Theo – I kept thinking, ‘if only [this] had been different.’ Picking at each life changing moment to see where his path could have forked in the road. But ultimately, such thoughts are irrelevant, as his life cannot be reversed and nothing can be changed. I was at once Theo contemplating life’s events, and his childhood friend Boris taking life for what it is. It’s not just Theo who climbs out of these pages, it’s New York and it’s residents – all of the personalities Theo connects with. Each is a creation of itself, there is nothing two-dimensional about this novel.
While the plot is set around The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius, I found myself becoming resentful of its position in the novel, as a tool to drive the story. I found my attention wavering at the more extravagant plot twists, certain events went on too long or seemed unfathomable in such a realistic reinvention of my own world. Without spoiling, I could have done without the events in Amsterdam. I enjoyed Tartt’s writing best when Theo was attempting to make his way through the sort of life most of us live, navigating the banality. This didn’t – as I began to fear – lead to a chocolate box ending.
Without the more adventurous elements of the novel The Goldfinch would have read as if these events could have happened to anyone. That is the sort of realism I enjoy, a retrospective on the moments of life we all experience. Yet, with the sudden changes came a ravenous desire to read which may not have been present otherwise. I thoroughly adored this book and I feel there is more meaning I have still to glean. Have you read it too? What did you think?
“To try and make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I only see a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.”