Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch is about loving beautiful things. With constant tensions, complicated relationships, and rising stakes, this book explores what it means to devote yourself to what eludes you.
Theo Decker, protagonist and mistake-maker in chief, has a weakness for beautiful art, beautiful furniture, and beautiful people. In the beginning of the novel, he and his mother are in an art museum when it’s bombed, and his mother doesn’t survive. From there, he’s tossed around from home to home, forced to make several new beginnings. The Goldfinch painting, which he steals in the aftermath of the bombing, stays with him along the way, wracking him with guilt.
Soon, he starts making more unethical moves, from committing petty fraud to help make more money for his mentor Hobie’s antique business to agreeing to marry a woman he doesn’t really love.
All along, the reader is holding her breath, wondering when all of Theo’s small, intricate lies will come crashing down into a big mess. At any moment, it seems that he could lose everything– his friends, his money and other people’s respect for him– in a single false step.
Everything culminates in the end in a swift series of disasters and near-misses. The painting Theo thought he had in his possession the whole time had actually been taken by his friend Boris years earlier and replaced with a textbook of the same size. Boris used the painting as bartering material on the black market and lost it, but when Theo is suspected of stealing the painting when the case is reopened, Boris swears he’ll help him recover it.
At the end of it all, Theo comes up with this realization:
“Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
It’s a hard question to answer, especially since Theo’s decisions cost him plenty. His life seems messy and tired by the end of the book– repaired for the moment, but quick to unravel again soon.
Through Theo’s experiences, the reader comes to understand that beauty isn’t just artificial, but substantial. The beauty of paintings, furniture, people, and objects sway people in surprising ways and make them do dangerous and brave and foolish things. One of the reasons Theo is so relatable, then, isn’t because his love of beautiful things is so strange– it’s because it’s so tangible.
“The disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer Prize,” Washington Post.
Tartt might have been able to draw out the difference between loving a real masterpiece and a fake if she had placed her reveal earlier in the novel or if she were less determined to stock it full of bric-a-brac.
I’ll work for free? I had the night off but I wanted to stay? Uh, right. Tartt’s working-class people of color read like wishful caricatures.
“Why You Absolutely Should Read ‘The Goldfinch,'” Huffington Post.
Bad writing is not bad because it’s simple, it’s bad because it takes you out of the story. And Tartt’s light language does just the opposite: It reels you into the world she’s created, and immerses you fully in her character’s experiences.