Closing The Chapter: ‘The Goldfinch’, Donna Tartt
If you’ve been reading This month’s book club selection, you will find that it is quite a lengthy read. However, we hope that this did not deter you from reading the book.
To get you up to speed if you’re just joining us, Tartt is as generous with her hommages as with her high-calorie sentences. When Boris whisks Theo into chases sound tracked by quickfire chatter that blends profanity and philosophy, dope and Dostoyevsky, you think “Tarantino” – and then she sits them down to watch Kill Bill. She never hides the brushstrokes.
The Goldfinch is at once a thriller involving the theft and disappearance of the Fabritius painting, a panoramic portrait of New York (and, for that matter, America) in the post-Sept. 11 era, and, most especially, an old-fashioned Bildungsroman, complete with a “Great Expectations”-like plot involving an orphan, his moral and sentimental education and his mysterious benefactor. It’s a novel that weds Ms. Tartt’s gift for orchestrating suspense (showcased in her best-selling and much-talked-about 1992 debut, The Secret History) with the hard-won knowledge she acquired in her ungainly 2002 novel, The Little Friend, of how to map the interior lives of her characters.
It’s a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns — how she can tackle the sort of big, philosophical questions addressed by the Russian masters even as she’s giving us a palpable sense, say, of what it’s like to be perilously high on medical-grade painkillers, or a lesson in distinguishing real antiques from fakes.
The narrator and hero of The Goldfinch is one Theo Decker, 13 when we first meet him, a smart New York scholarship kid who lives alone with his mother in a small Manhattan apartment. His heavy-drinking father, who abruptly left them (no money, no forwarding address), was always so unreliable that Theo developed a lasting fear that his mother might not come home from work: “Addition and subtraction were useful mainly insofar as they helped me track her movements (how many minutes till she left the office? How many minutes to walk from office to subway?).”
Then, one day, everything changes: Theo and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition featuring one of her favorite paintings, The Goldfinch, when a terrorist bomb explodes. Theo’s mother is killed, and his life divides, forever, into a Before and After.
No doubt ingenious readers can explain how in fact that’s somehow the point, or how if you just look at the earlier parts the right way, they turn out to be profoundly illuminating about something besides drug-addled idiocy and vomiting. I could probably spin a story like that myself about the novel if I put my mind to it! It’s festooned with praise and prizes.
We can only hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did.