‘It was wonderful. It was awful. It was ten years. It was everything.’ – Donna Tartt, November 2013, Manchester, U.K.
Donna Tartt’s comment about writing her third novel The Goldfinch could equally have been said by the book’s protagonist, Theodore Decker. Opening in a hotel in Amsterdam, where we know he’s in some sort of trouble, Theo begins to look back over the events that have led to this time and place. These events begin with the death of his mother when he’s thirteen.
In trouble at school, Theo’s mum takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, prior to a meeting that will decide Theo’s future. They don’t make the meeting as a terrorist bomb explodes in the museum and Theo’s mother is killed.
She’s taken him to the Met to see an exhibition titled ‘Portraiture and Nature Morte: Northern Masterworks of the Golden Age’.
…“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few things…”
Her voice drifted away as I trailed behind her up the Great Staircase – torn between the prudent need to stick close and the urge to slink a few paces back and try to pretend I wasn’t with her.
“I hate to race through like this,” she was saying as I caught up with her at the top of the stairs, “but then again it’s the kind of show where you need to come two or three times. There’s The Anatomy Lesson, and we do have to see that, but what I really want to see is one tiny, rare piece by a painter who was Vermeer’s teacher. Greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of.”
The ‘tiny, rare piece’ is, of course, ‘The Goldfinch’ from which the novel takes its title and when the explosion takes place, Theo happens to be in the same room as the painting. He comes round close to a man whom he’s been watching walk around the gallery with a girl who appears to be his granddaughter. Unbeknownst to Theo, this man – Welty – is to be the catalyst for the events which drive the rest of his life.
Don’t leave it. No.” He was looking past me, trying to point at something. “Take it away from there.”
Please, lie down –
“No! They mustn’t see it.” He was frantic, gripping my arm now, trying to pull himself up. “They’ve stolen the rugs, they’ll take it to the customs shed – “
He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.
“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”
“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.
I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.
Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust.
I crawled over and put the painting in the nylon shopping bag, just to get it out of his sight, it was upsetting him so.
And so, when Theo leaves the museum some time later, he does so with Fabritius’ painting as well as ‘a heavy gold ring with a carved stone’ which Welty has pressed upon him with the words ‘”Hobart and Blackwell…Ring the green bell.”’
The events of the day change Theo’s life in three main ways. Firstly, he needs a guardian while either his errant father is found or his grandparents can be persuaded to take him in. For reasons unknown to Theo, the first people he mentions to the authorities are the Barbours, a Park Avenue based family whose son Andy is a school friend of his. The Barbours introduce Theo to a particular type of lifestyle, one that includes collecting art and antiques. Secondly, taking Welty’s ring to Hobart and Blackwell leads Theo to Hobie, an antiques restorer, who will play a significant role in the rest of his life. At Hobie’s, Theo also discovers Pippa, the girl he’d been watching in the museum whom he thought was Welty’s granddaughter. She also will play a significant part in the rest of his life. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, is Theo’s connection to ‘The Goldfinch’. By taking it, he’s committed a crime that will tie him to the painting forever. This illuminates a key theme in the novel, that of ‘captivity and the ways we try to escape’. (Donna Tartt, November 2013, Manchester, U.K.) Theo is tied to the painting and the day his mother was killed, as the goldfinch is chained to the perch it stands upon. His life is destined to take a particular route because of the extraordinary circumstances he has to deal with at such a young age and the decisions almost forced upon him by Welty.
What’s wonderful about The Goldfinch is the detail with which Tartt explores each scene. She describes herself as ‘a miniaturist’; her first published writing was poetry and she says she maintains the habits of a poet. This allows the reader to become completely immersed in the scene – we live Theo’s life with him, seeing what he sees, doing what he does.
The plotting’s also (almost) perfect. It’s incredible to see all the strands that Tartt runs through the novel and how the moment you begin to wonder what’s happening with the painting or where a particular character is, that thread weaves its way to the forefront of the narrative again.
I do have two problems with the novel though and they’re both with the ending (don’t worry, this will be spoiler free). The first is that events towards the end of the book take a turn for the ridiculous. I can buy into Theo finding himself in the middle of a bombing and, in the aftermath of the event, leaving with a priceless painting that he ends up never wanting to be parted from. However, the final twist, as Theo remains in that Amsterdam hotel room we meet him in at the beginning of the book is too fast-paced and absurd.
The second is that at the very end of the book, we’re told a lot of information about the painting – its creation; the extraordinary circumstances of Fabritous’ death and the survival of the painting, and what the painting might represent. This is problematic because, to me, it didn’t sound like Theo’s voice anymore, it sounded like the author’s, and it felt as though Tartt wanted to give us this information from her research and felt compelled to include it.
However, despite these issues, The Goldfinch is one of the best books I’ve read this year and, the last fifty pages of the novel aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Theodore Decker’s coming-of-age and the cast of characters that populated it. A novel to immerse yourself in over the holidays.