Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, made lots of noise when taking the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was drawn to it because I like novels that wrap around other art forms like music or paintings. We surround ourselves with those things in real life, it only makes sense that our fictional characters should do the same thing.
But alas, while I had hoped to love the novel, I have to say I am worn. There were many times I had decided to close the book and re-shelve it for some other date. But that was only after working my way through a good half of the book. There would be no turning back. I was to finish. But don’t let me completely undersell, I wanted to finish! It felt right to get to the end. Still, I trudged rather than glide.
The Goldfinch’s narrator, Theo, does a masterful job at recreating memories past that involve lots of sorrow. The novel opens with Theo in another country seemingly in a world of trouble. But he recalls memories of his mother, which begins to spin the top of this story. He takes us back to New York City when he was a preteen living with his mother. A tragedy takes her from him too soon, only to bring in the true main character of the novel, The Goldfinch by Fabritius — the painting (check spelling).
I could go on and on but a cast of characters comes into Theo’s life, which is far from being at peace. He lands in the lap of luxury to be dragged away to Las Vegas, has a stint with his sordid father, picks up a strange best friend, returns to a true family-figure, and grows up. Insert lots of drugs and booze and an innumerable amount of mistakes, and you wind up with this novel.
As I mentioned, the painting plays the greatest role yet on a muted level. It’s specter-like, making small quick appearances, but never quite leaving, always feeling somewhat intangible. Regardless, the painting acts as the conduit fro these relationships. It conducts the electricity of the namesake novel.
The majesty of the painting is how (not surprising) Theo’s life mimics the “story” in the scene. The small bird is chained as a pet. It is chained to its fate, and the painting but an observation. Theo is also chained to his fate that he can’t escape. It also seems as if he is chained to the other characters as well. Even as he seemingly leaves them behind, they show up again: His father shows back up after abandoning him, he meets Pippa after the accident, he will later live/work with Hobie, Boris becomes an invaluable part of his life that also make several reappearances. Looking at the painting, the chain is very thin, but it holds the bird to the perch.
In that the painting is an observation of a scene, so too is this novel. It is written by Theo in an effort to understand (768) (and also, he claims, for Pippa). This writing is an observation of his past but not of his full life. He says he hasn’t written it completely from memory, but rather from pieces of writing he’s written through the years — rather like brush strokes.
There are of course many other resemblances. In Theo’s interpretation of his own story, he ponders the message of the actual painting: “Why this subject? … this lonely little captive? Chained to his perch? Who knows what Fabritius was trying to tell us by his choice of the tiny subject?” (765).
There was also a great moment in a very annoying conversation between Boris and Theo towards the end: “wouldn’t all those dozens of other paintings be remain missing too? Forever maybe? Wrapped in brown paper? Still shut in that apartment? No one to look at them? Lonely and lost to the world?” (746). What if Theo had never stitched these thoughts together from his notebooks and letters? It would be a lost story to the world. And novels are most certainly art forms, so is this Tartt interjecting herself? I wonder too at modifying the question somewhat … what if the Pulitzer hadn’t been awarded, would this go unnoticed amongst the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble?
Anyway, I’m belaboring this post much like this novel carried on, and on … and on. The length really disappointed me. I don’t know that I felt a return on my investment of time. I had hoped for a sharp novel. But my appreciation for Tartt’s style only points out the perversity of my dislike. She is good, and I would consider reading other her work again.
The Goldfinch has moments were it shines profoundly, but it also has moments that are as dull as the plain background in the painting. The beauty of the novel stems from art imitating art as the novel does towards the painting. But I think you may be better off just appreciating Fabritius’s art and passing this novel over.
Favorite Passages from The Goldfinch
“People die, sure,” my mother was saying. “But it’s so heartbreaking and unneccesary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.” (28)
I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats. (28)
When we are sad — at least like this — it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the things that don’t change. (281)
“None of us ever find enough kindness in the world, do we?” (282)
— God, I love this.
An object — any object — was worthy whatever you could get somebody to pay for it. (457)
“Hard to put things right. You don’t often get that chance. Sometimes all you can do is not get caught.” (550)
starched shirts and suits fresh from the cleaners’ went a long, long way toward hiding a multitude of sins (568)
To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole (603)
Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly “worry” was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person. (692)
“Isn’t everything worthwhile a gamble? Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange backdoors?” (758)
A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are. (761)
I’ve written all of this, oddly, with the idea that Pippa will see it someday—which of course she won’t. No one will, for obvious reasons.
— Au contraire
And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love. (770)
— Ok Matthew McConaghey
That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but 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 form the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. (771)