Today she gives us a review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a book people seem to either love or hate (but mostly love) from an author who makes a walloping impression. I read Tartt’s The Secret History when I was in college and was profoundly affected. I read it many years later when I was teaching and was impressed it held up. It remains to this day one of my favorite novels. (Plus I can empathize with someone who takes a decade to write a book…)
Donna Tartt has written one of the first great American novels of the 21st century: The Goldfinch. Her aptly-named main character — Theo Decker — alludes to the Nietzschean idea that not only is God dead, not only have we killed him, but we’ve wasted him, blown him away, stuffed any remaining shreds of sacredness into a padded bubble mailer and not even noticed when someone switched out our only miracle while we were zonked on drugs or booze or gambling or relationships or Facebook or whatever has enthralled us. With The Goldfinch, Tartt holds up a mirror to nature that is so cracked it is hard to keep looking: it’s especially alarming, because we don’t want to believe that we’ve doomed ourselves to the extent that we have.
It is not a novel about climate change. It’s a novel about a boy who loses everything. Near the story’s end, Theo admits that “Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean that 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.” The paradoxical tone of the novel — this bleak open-heartedness — divides people into two distinct groups: those who love it and those who cannot tolerate it. Lukewarm reports from people who “sorta liked” The Goldfinch are hard to find, maybe because the novel, at 771 pages, requires a hearty investment of time. Readers either finish the book and love it, or they don’t immediately love it and therefore don’t finish it.
The basic plot is this: Theo Decker’s life is devastated early on by a bomb attack on an art museum, wherein he and his mother seek shelter from a rainstorm and kill time before a scheduled conference with Theo’s school principal. The explosion suggests the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and although Theo walks away from the catastrophe physically unscathed, his soul forever after suffers from what the explosion steals from him (his mother, his sense that the world is an okay place). In addition to leaving with all his limbs, he also escapes the wreck with “The Goldfinch,” a small painting by the obscure Dutch master, Carel Fabritius. Unsure of why he’s taken the painting (described alluringly by Tartt), he frets about how to return it, taking so much time that he fears what will happen if he does return it. So he avoids returning it, but he cannot unknow that he has not returned it; thereby, he unwittingly commits one of the great art heists of the century, a fact which haunts him epically, but not enough to motivate him to return the painting. Tartt uses Fabritius’ painting as a MacGuffin to move the plot along and to complicate the conflict in the plot. However, as with all great stories, the characters keep the reader turning the pages. Along with Theo, an ensemble of major characters dominate the scene: Boris (Theo’s hardcore best friend, son of a Russian mobster); Theo’s duplicitous, rattled father and his skeezy girlfriend, Xandra; the blueblood, seemingly inbred Upper East Side Barbour family; the evil villain Lucius Reeve; the uber-mensch Hobie and his niece, the ethereal Pippa.
Certainly, The Goldfinch can be categorized as a dark novel, but also one that is certainly steeped in light. Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction — her own or someone’s close to hers — will be amazed at Tartt’s knowledge of the subject matter. The main characters in this book abuse a LOT of illegal substances. One might even wonder if the twelve-year radio silence between the publications of The LIttle Friend and The Goldfinch wasn’t caused by Tartt’s own journey through a dark night of the soul. Regardless, Tartt has turned whatever baggage she’s carrying into a true treasure with The Goldfinch. This is literary fiction of the highest order (remember, it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade a work of fiction can receive in America), which means that the characters are complex, conflicted, and psychologically profound; the settings (New York and Las Vegas) are saturated with symbolism; the atmosphere and mood are dense and tense, rendered with exquisitely-tuned concrete, sensory detail. As all classics are, Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a must-read for any writer — aspiring or seasoned — to learn or remember how and why the objective correlative matters, why and when the first-person/past tense point of view works best, what a MacGuffin is and how it advances a story’s plot.
Even a potential design-flaw, like the overabundance of times that Tartt’s characters wipe their foreheads with the backs of their hands, is absorbed by the gratifying experience of finishing the novel and the memory one has of the story and of reading the story. And perhaps, for those readers who persevere long and read closely enough to notice it, this ubiquitous brow-wiping is another example of the objective correlative at work in this novel: Whew! Made it through the wreck this time. Hopefully, the next generation, and the next, will make it through, too.
Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.