In Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, disparate strands weave into an untidy, wonderful and compulsively readable tale that wends its way around a Dutch painting from the seventeenth century. Its intrinsic merit and complicated joy lie in its tapestry as seen from afar, knotted, threadbare and completely destroyed in sections, but retaining a beauty and ability to satisfy the eye that is only completely seen through a long-focus lens or the ability to approach a work of art over years—a way to achieve a certain transcendence amidst the confusion and pain of adolescence and its potential heartbreaks.
Theo Decker is a thirteen-year-old boy living on the Upper West Side in New York when the story starts. By chance and inclination, he and his mother kill time at the Metropolitan Museum before a conference about his suspension from school. An avid art history lover, his mother takes him to see an exhibit of Dutch artists that includes Rembrandt and his student Carel Fabritius, whose painting The Goldfinch is a rarity in the exhibit.
Fabritius, killed from an explosion at a gunpowder factory in Delft, has left behind a tiny but extraordinary body of work. Theo’s mother sees The Goldfinch as the most important work in the exhibit, a painting that she came to cherish as a girl when studying a reproduction in a book. As she explains to him what it means to her, and how the Dutch painters expressed life’s uncertainty through their symbols of mortality, Theo sees an unusual girl his age who catches his eye and distracts him with her off-kilter look. This moment is a lovely snapshot of his carefully observed teenage world before it changes in one instant, a moment preserved in amber before his already somewhat unstable existence smashes into unrecognizable flotsam and jetsam, the world tumbling head over bloody heels before his uncomprehending eyes.
Theo Decker struggles to survive a journey through adolescence that takes him back and forth from the culture and beauty of New York to the bankruptcy and obscene glitter of Las Vegas and the northern light of Holland. This is the light that nourished the painter Fabritius and gave birth to his exquisite painting of a tiny, watchful bird sitting on a perch, delicately chained to prevent it from flying away.
Theo is highly flawed, acting out and trying to dull his pain in whatever way he can. He is often unlikeable, and yet his complicated personal journey carries the reader along. At school in Las Vegas he meets a fascinating drifter named Boris, someone whose father moves around the world for work after several months or years in each place. Boris’s Polish-Ukrainian-Russian roots inform his fatalism and blunt honesty, and his natural ebullience keeps him afloat. He becomes Theo’s best friend and companion in exploring the lawlessness and rootlessness of the dislocated world they inhabit while finding connection within it.
The Goldfinch serves as both a literary novel of merit and an unlikely page-turner. Tartt’s writing has a smooth, tumbling, and carefully unwieldy cadence. Her dark narrative takes a reader through compelling plot twists and discoveries. As a narrator Theo is worth one’s time, despite and because of his difficult nature. He seeks love and truth in complicated places, buoyed by the idea of a painting he has come to cherish as a symbol of his mother and of something wordless he is seeking. He finds help and forgiveness in the human connections he makes through this painting as he tries to forgive himself for his mistakes and find salvation.
Ultimately, The Goldfinch compassionately explores the ways in which an adult can find redemption in the uncontrollable and often corrupt world of the twenty-first century. It believes in the work of art as a way to find and cherish immortality amidst ephemerality and connection amidst alienation. Donna Tartt creates Theo as a typical teenager growing into a young man suffering from emptiness, a hole in his soul that he tries to fill in typical self-destructive ways. Yet he, like any of us, can be consoled for life’s hardships through the truths that a magnificent piece of art and the people he has come to love present.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer