The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Books can have this effect on a reader too, they get into your head and under your skin—make you itch in a pleasant way and they haunt you—yup, I’m joining the five star pile for The Goldfinch, okay? Donna Tartt has produced three novels in thirty years, which doesn’t sound like much, but damn they are BIG ONES. Books (in general) are like Dr. Who’s Tardis, small on the outside, big as the outdoors on the inside, then there are Donna Tartt’s books—OMG they are ginormous on the inside—more than just another world or a construct—holy crap, they’re big gorgeous monsters! You approach them not to conquer, but to understand, appreciate, to identify with—this is literature—a human document. To offer up my gut reaction about it—I loved The Goldfinch, plain and simple. Why do I love it? That’s not so simple, but I’ll try to explain it.
I read the first fifty pages at bedtime that first night and my eyes were as wide open as peeled onions from thinking about it long after I turned out the lights. The following nights, I took it in smaller bites to savor it—yes, I could’ve easily blasted through it, gobbled it up gone and done in no time, but I didn’t because I needed my sleep. In a way, I was glad that the book slowed down after those first fifty pages, I went with the flow and enjoyed the view. Indeed, there is so much detail and so much going on, it would be too easy to blink and miss something, but I didn’t miss a thing.
As an artist and a museum worker, I enjoyed the book on the professional level as well as the writer/reader part of me. As a reader of Russian Literature, I found the references made to Theo’s friend, Boris, reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot were appropriate in spirit (yet another multilayered psychological and philosophical study of the human condition.) I was glad that I had read The Idiot fairly recently (2008) so it was still fresh enough for me to recall it (loved it.) I’ve read reviews that compare The Goldfinch to various Dickens novels (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and The Old Curiosity Shop.) It is, but it isn’t, more isn’t than it is—it’s Donna Tartt writing Donna Tartt, of her time and place—Dickens makes a good literary lighthouse to point to, I guess.
One potential pothole I watched for was how she handled the technology of cell phones and the Internet, because the gadgets and the access changed so much from the time she first started writing the book to its publication. She was wise enough to keep the use of these devices forgivably ambiguous enough to make it work for the span of time during Theo’s journey. (It’s a small detail, and writers do fret about these details, trust me on this.)
The Goldfinch is different from her two previous works, The Secret History and The Little Friend (If I hear one more whiner crying that it’s not like The Secret History, I’ll scream. Of course not! Idgit.)—The Goldfinch has a personality of its own— a sibling of the other two. Like children, the first-born will be different from the second, and the third—or the last in a long line of children forming a new generation, each one different as much as they are related. They may look alike or sound alike; they are clearly from the same parents because of the color of their eyes or the curl of their hair, short or tall, blah-blah-blah. I love The Goldfinch for what it is—a long, complicated tome, intense, tragic, brutal, and heartbreaking—an unhappy tale; it’s just how things are for Theo Decker. It has an unsettling atmosphere, so finding lighter moments became restful—these were the gems of forgetfulness that arrived to make things feel “okay” and “safe” for a little while (anyone who has lost a loved one, will relate to that temporary amnesia, trust me on that too.) Yet, the nagging anxiety was always within reach, hidden in a shopping bag, or a pillowcase taped to the back of the bed, or tucked away somewhere locked. The repetitive nature of the narrative, in my mind, shed light on the mental state of Theo as he attempted to cope—obsessive and compulsive, dangerously so—the book truly had very unpleasant moments. A young man whose life was forever altered in an instant, there is no being “normal” after that sort of experience—the psychological damage is done—the kid is broken, and becomes a broken adult wearing a veneer of normality; he’s always hiding something. I admire the work, the research, the years put into it. It has everything including the kitchen sink in it—it’s well-crafted and every word accounted for—it all mattered. Tightly wound, molded, modeled, constructed—polished, polished again, and then polished some more. (The Secret History as the “first born” possesses that magical raw beauty of being the first of its kind—The Goldfinch in comparison may have been “spoiled” with too much love, but turned out just fine in spite of it—it is a work by a mature author, that’s the difference.) It is gutsy and classic—not too many write like this anymore, dang, the depth of description at times was dense—lovely. At times, I was truly amazed that it was let through at such a stunning size and as verbally extravagant as Dostoyevsky (or Dickens), yet, I could not find reason to cut it to pieces. The digressive philosophical ending at first glance felt a bit off when I waded into it, but the water was temperate, I understood it as being an epilogue, returning to the beginning—Theo looking back from a safe distance of time to review and absorb—to purge it one more time. I found it satisfying.
Books like these don’t come around often enough, I took my time with this one—treating myself to a story that I have waited a very long time to read. I was not disappointed—only that it ended, and who knows when the next one will come into being…LJWR, 2/1/2014