Yes, I’m three years behind in my reading (at least). I’ve just read Donna Tartt’s 3rd novel, The Goldfinch, published by Little, Brown in 2013, and awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2014.
The cover features a glimpse of the famous, priceless painting by Carl Fabritius (1654), which is the metaphorical subject of the novel, and the key to its plot and central character. The fact that the painting is only glimpsed through a tear in the cover page is a clever symbol for the part the painting plays in the life of Theo Deker, aged 13 when the story starts, and about 27 when it finishes. The image of it inside the cover of the actual book is dull and unremarkable. Here is another reproduction which shows something of its understated, imprisoned beauty more clearly.
Theo and his mother visit the Museum of Modern Art to escape a rain storm and to fill in time while waiting to have an interview at Theo’s school about his suspension for smoking. Theo’s mother is beautiful, and loves him unconditionally. When he escapes from the Museum, shattered by a bomb blast, some hours later, he has lost her, and carries with him The Goldfinch. He doesn’t believe she is dead at first, because he couldn’t find her body as he stumbled and crawled around the room she had been in before the blast.
This loss, and the almost accidental acquisition of the painting, shape his life henceforth, her death the dividing mark between Before and After. I’m not going to summarise the plot; suffice to say that he drifts from being an awkward guest of a wealthy family whose son is his friend, to several years in Las Vegas with his father, a would-be reformed alcoholic who is addicted to pills and to gambling, then back to New York, where he finds refuge, comfort and some sort of purpose in living with Hobie, the elderly, eccentric, gentle and gifted furniture restorer. Hobie was the business partner of an old man Theo tried to help as he lay dying in the Museum, who had given him Hobie’s address, and in another window of lucidity in his delirium, urged him to rescue The Goldfinch which lay, ripped from its frame, nearby.
So the book falls into three parts, each dense with detail and characters both high- and lowlife, in a plot that has many surprising twists and turns. The dramatic events which start Theo’s journey through life as an orphan, the reversals and cul de sacs that follow, and his character as an orphan who grows up, not without a strong moral sense, compassion, and capacity for love and devotion, but lost, despairing underneath, and finding solace in drugs, fraud and crime (including the theft of the priceless painting, which is a talisman for his mother), have inspired many reviewers to call the novel Dickensian. I can see the parallels but find it intensely modern, first of all in its setting, in the capitalist centres of New York, uptown and downtown, in Las Vegas and in the old world yet cosmopolitan European, unfriendly back streets and hotels of Amsterdam. Also in the rich, contradictory, tormented consciousness of Theo, the narrator-protagonist. Dickens’ characters are always seen from outside, even in the first person, whereas I feel, with Theo, that I am there with him, even in the most unlikely and desperate situations. At the same time, the characters he meets and is involved with are portrayed with deft strokes, vivid detail, and dialogue that is cadenced and convincing. One of the most three-dimensional characters is Boris, his streetwise friend from Las Vegas, who shares the unfortunate biography of a mother lost when he was young and a violent alcoholic father. Boris is Russian-Polish, and learnt to speak English in Australia, so he speaks a slightly stilted but colourful dialect. He is tougher than Theo, harder, and ultimately more optimistic, though he has his own suicidal trajectory. When Theo asks him, on their dark, dangerous adventure involving The Goldfinch in Amsterdam, why he shoots up (which Theo draws the line at), Boris replies that he is a ‘chipper’, who does it only on special occasions:
That said, Boris added somberly—blue movie light glinting off the teaspoon—I am alcoholic. Damage is done, there. I’m a drunk till I die. If anything kills me—nodding at the Russian Standard bottle on the coffee table—that’ll be it.
Why do I love this book? It had me gripped, in a world so unfamiliar, so rich and strange and often uncomfortable and dark, yet shot with intense shafts of light, a vision of life that I do not share yet can empathise with through Tartt’s magical storytelling. One such moment of intense light is early in the story, when Theo meets again with Pippa, a girl his own age who had been with the old man who died in the Museum. She sustained a bad head injury in the blast, and is still recovering at Hobie’s when Theo sees her again, in bed in a darkened room, listening to classical music on her iPod. She gives Theo an earbud and they listen together to Palestrina. Theo had fallen in love with her when he had glimpsed her in the Museum before the blast; indeed, he had left his mother looking at paintings to make his way to the section where she was standing with the old man, which is how it happened that his mother was killed by the blast and he was not. Hobie appears at the door to tell Pippa it is time to go with her aunt to live.
The hem of a sheer curtain brushed a windowsill. Faintly, I heard traffic singing in the street. Sitting there on the edge of her bed, it felt like the waking-up moment between dream and daylight where everything merged and mingled just as it was about to change, all in the same, fluid, euphoric slide: rainy light, Pippa sitting up with Hobie in the doorway, and her kiss (with the peculiar flavor of what I now believe to have been a morphine lollipop) still sticky on my lips. Yet I’m not sure that even morphine would account for how light-headed I felt at that moment, how smilingly wrapped-up in happiness and beauty.
Loss is a strong theme in this book; Theo’s loss of his mother, of his father, of Pippa, who grows up to be with someone else, of The Goldfinch, of the double identity he has built up for himself in his life and work with Hobie. Outwardly, he is a successful businessman, who rescues Hobie’s world from bankruptcy. In reality, he jeopardises that world by selling fake antique furniture. The loss of The Goldfinch in Amsterdam (read the book to find out how) is his Damascus experience. Thereafter he returns to New York, to Hobie, and sets about making good the frauds he has committed by buying back the fake pieces. But there is no redemption for his soul, no romantic ending. He continues to believe that “life ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end”. But there is a twist: “as cruelly as the game is stacked, … it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy”. The joy comes from the moving qualities he finds in the impermanence of hotels, the moments of beauty, the spaces between the notes of music. Art survives death, and Theo’s love for that impossible golden bird has helped it, like other beautiful things, to ‘sing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.’
Of course, this begs the question of whether his long possession of the painting did really protect it, whether its survival was not a matter of chance and Boris’s underworld dealings as much as of Theo’s love for it. In some ways, the final message for me is itself as flawed as is Theo the character. But that doesn’t lessen my joy in it.