The Goldfinch is having a moment. Published in October of last year, the novel by Donna Tartt has received wide acclaim from readers and critics. It’s become something of a pop culture phenomenon. Which prompts the question—why do people love it so much?
The book is 771 pages long. It’s the story of a boy named Theodore Decker, whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at a New York City museum. Theo survives the catastrophe, but carries emotional and psychological scars away from the ruins—as well as a small painting, a priceless work of art by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius, that he carries out in a half-daze. The rest of his life, scattered and despairing, whirls and builds around this secret: Theo carries the museum masterpiece with him wherever he goes, burdened and dazzled by it. The book is about beauty and despair, our desperate search for meaning in chaos. In the midst of ugly truth, we are told by Tartt to step into the “middle zone, the polychrome edge between truth and untruth,” where life becomes tolerable and beauty soothes our pain. The only things that last are “beautiful things,” pulled from the wreckage and the fire of life.
It’s despairing, yet somehow also hopeful. It’s an interesting idea for a bildungsroman novel, and Tartt gives us the bones of an excellent plot. Though I wish she had perhaps honed and polished (and cut) this novel a bit more, her questions of meaning and loss are poignant for the modern reader, and give us a clue as to why so many people appreciate this book.
In some places, Tartt’s style shines. In the beginning scenes with Theo’s mother, when they traipse from hotel to art gallery, with bits of dialogue in between, Tartt builds a lovely sense of background, history, and foreshadowing. The pieces of artistic detail that Theo’s mother offers, in the bit of time before the explosion, are interesting and have a sense of wavering foreboding. We hold on to them, waiting for them to spring up in Theo’s memory later.
There are other places where the details paint a vibrant picture, giving us a sense of gorgeous artistry: specifically, I loved the bits about Hobie’s workshop, his chairs, the beautiful details about their make, the wood, the polish, etc. Tartt paints a gorgeous scene here. Her sensory descriptions are quite vivid throughout, and paint a kaleidoscopic picture. Theo’s adventures with Boris, in both Nevada and Amsterdam, add pops of color in the often monochrome world of Theo’s mind.
But from the very beginning, Theo seems to have very little depth as a protagonist. When we meet him, we get very few impressions of his character—except for the fact that he’s a victim of childhood trauma, due to the fact that he has an abusive father, who recently left him and his mother. Thus, from the very first pages, Theo is painted as a passive bystander to tragedy and misfortune. The only attributes of his character that build with time are his despair, self-absorption, and obsession with Pippa (a young girl he meets early on, who was also present at the bombings). Each of these things are incredibly passive. The deaths of various characters never seem to hit him on an emotional level (besides the death of his mother). We get some sense of emotional shell-shock after the death of his father and his friend Andy, but it’s mostly just that: shock. No deeper emotion. Theo feels like a zombie walking around for almost the entirety of the novel. There is no release from his lackluster, numb response to life—until near the end, when he begins to pull out of this haze and exert himself in caring for Andy’s mother and sister.
Tartt gives us some plot features and philosophical ideas that bring to mind Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh: it has the same “awakening” of mind and soul, the appreciation and obsession with beauty and art, the familial connection with friends to build a sense of belonging. It has some of the same character and plot developments seen in Oliver Twist: the parentless child thrown on the mercy of evil or misguided people, the Artful Dodger (in The Goldfinch, Theo’s friend Boris is compared to Dickens’ Dodger), the clownish, caricature-like feel of Mr. Bumble, Fagin, Mrs. Corney mirrored in Xandra and Theo’s father.
But Tartt’s use of the ironic is sharp and poignant. At the end of the book, Theo is about to abandon himself to death or prison. He’s at the end of himself, experiencing regret over a lifetime of guilt and deception. He’s run out of rope. In a sort of Tale of Two Cities plot twist, his old friend Boris come to the rescue—he steps into Theo’s stead, presents an important price. But there’s no real sacrifice, no moment of painful agape or “redemption.” Instead, Boris’s solution is easy and painless, a quick (and almost obvious) trick that results in a get-out-of-jail-free card for Boris and Theo. There is no justice, no grace, no real redemption. Just a trick.
That is what Tartt seems to communicate with this book: life is a chaotic, depressing mess. We are all victims of situation—chained to our circumstances, like the goldfinch in the painting. The only way out? Cheat life’s suffering with joy. Trick your circumstances with beauty and love. That is what art is for. That is what Tartt’s Nietzsche quote points to, at the beginning of Part V: “We have art in order not to die from the truth.” The strongest, best character in this book is Boris—and his entire life is a mixture of truth and facade, a sleight of hand, in which we never feel like we see the real Boris, full on—yet we’re also always convinced of his genuineness. He’s the happiest, most loveable character in the book.
The Goldfinch may not offer the delicious plot intricacies of a Dickensian work, or the full metaphysical catharsis of Waugh. All the same, Tartt is obviously hitting on some questions of meaning and purpose that deeply trouble the modern reader. Her attempts to answer those questions, and the gusto with which her writing has been received, tells us much about our metaphysical moment, and the deeper pinings of our age. Interestingly, the novel offers a lot of similar feelings—the dark nihilism, the twists of fate, the obsession with art—to those featured in The Fault in Our Stars, another novel that has been extremely popular lately. Both have a protagonist that is a victim of circumstances, a moody and withdrawn individual who sees life as chaotic and meaningless. Both characters find solace in their obsession over an artistic object (one literary, the other a painting). Both walk away, in the end, with the decision that we all will suffer pain and nothingness in the end, but moments of beauty and love serve as our solace. These novels communicate the only hope that can be present in a transient, amoral world. The presence of beauty, its preservation and adulation, offer us the only hope, the only distraction available from our woes.
But one wonders if Tartt, who is a Roman Catholic, is trying to communicate something more through her book than John Green attempted with TFiOS. Theo’s name, “Theodore,” means “God-given.” According to Emily Esfahani Smith, who reviewed the book for The New Criterion, “goldfinches are, as the novel’s Roman Catholic author surely knows, a symbol of Jesus and his resurrection—the triumph of good over evil, the promise of everlasting life.” Theo’s clutching at beauty in chaos points to light, and order, in the darkness of life. And in picking up this book, one wonders if people are looking for the same pinpricks of light in their darkness: the beauty around the edges, the lovely matter that emerges from the wreckage.