The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

‘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.

0 thoughts on “The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

    • It’s great and I only really skimmed what happens in it. It shows you how good it is when I really didn’t like the ending but it had very little bearing on how I feel about it as a whole. I’d be interested to know what you think if you do give it a try.

      • *tiny bit spoilery in a very vague way*

        I thought that the last few pages were absolutely beautifully written – the passage about what you do if your heart doesn’t want to do the right thing (ineloquently described!) and then the last paragraph were some of the best I’ve read this year. I thought it was superb as a piece of writing and also was the perfect end to the novel and Theo’s character – I thought it struck the perfect balance between uplifting and yet still right for the story. I was sat on the sofa for a good ten minutes after I’d finished it just re-reading and thinking about it!

        “Is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?” *swoon*

        • Oh, I don’t disagree about the quality of the writing at all, nor the ‘end’ for Theo’s character in terms of plot. My issue is that most of those last few pages didn’t sound like Theo to me, they sounded like Donna Tartt. My big problem was with Bruno’s final appearance and the speed with which he recovered ‘the gift’ he returned. (Hoping that’s vague enough not to be a spoiler.)

  1. I am very tempted by this one but its appearance has reminded me that I haven’t read The Little Friend! I loved The Secret History but I’ve heard mixed things about TLF. It came up in the discussion at our last book group and opinions were divided – I’d be interested to hear where you stand on it!

    The miniaturist approach is interesting, isn’t it? I heard her discussing something similar during a recent radio interview…something along the lines of painting a wall-sized canvas with a brush the size and precision of an eyelash.

    • Is this the place to fess up that The Goldfinch is the first of hers I’ve read? A former student of mine bought me a copy of The Secret History and I still haven’t read it. I want to, it’s just become one of those books that almost makes it to the top of the pile and never quite gets there. I want to read more back catalogue works next year, so hopefully I’ll be able to get back to you on TLF then.

      Yes, I’ve heard her use that description. I think it’s fascinating but I think it’d bore me rigid to write that way!

      • I heard this on the radio but that felt more like a taster – there was no way to do justice to that complexity in three hours. The reviews on Amazon have been mostly of the “blown away” category and I do mean to read this to savour properly when I have time. It seems like a most enjoyable book to read.

      • Well, it’s my fault for assuming you’d read it! Oh, The Secret History is so worth a shot. Incredibly impressive for a debut novel and it felt like an instant classic from the get-go.

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  3. Everyone is talking about this book, so I was first not really interested, but you all write such amazing and encouraging reviews that I feel like buying it in my next visit to the bookshop.

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