A Heart That Can’t Be Trusted: Thoughts on Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch

vegetablesforyou.com-2Donna 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.

Spoilers ahead.

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When Fiction Gets Really Fictiony

9780062105622_custom-a749cacb4e7b05f66183a4069f5a6fd62f4a5b35-s6-c30When it comes to stories, everybody knows that when you say, “That character’s not believable,” it’s a bad thing. You hear it in school. You hear it in workshop groups. You hear it when people talk about what they’re reading. This intense preoccupation with everything–even fiction– being extremely believable is human nature. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle talks about how mimesis in narratives creates an emotional connections between the writer and the audience:

The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

In other words, people connect to what they know. Fiction, then, becomes a balancing act: get as close to the truth as possible without telling the truth.

I thought about this paradox when I read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, Maya’s Notebook, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was fascinated by the story of Maya Vidal, a teenager who gets involved with drugs, runs away, gets caught up with a group of criminals and addicts, then is saved by her adoring, spunky grandmother and whisked off to Chiloé, a rural island in Chilé. It’s a fantastically entertaining book, but the eerie thing about it is that for all the darkness it takes on (counterfeit money rings, drugs, racism, rape, police corruption, alcoholism, death), it’s filled with an overarching sense of serenity and joy. Maya overcomes her addictions more easily than a person might in real life; her grandmother is a little too adept at out-smarting the police, considering she doesn’t have any practice as a criminal and all her knowledge is theoretical; the romance between Maya and the dreamy American guy visiting Chiloé, Daniel, is a little too perfect.

I loved all these unbelievable things, even though they were unbelievable. Because they were unbelievable. Mary Pols says on her review of Maya’s Notebook on NPR:

I myself was not scared by Maya’s story, mostly because I didn’t believe a word of it… Maya may be a lively character, but she never feels remotely real.

I didn’t believe Maya’s character, either. Her voice didn’t sound like a teenager’s voice to me and she seemed to get through her struggles a little too calmly. But unlike Pols, I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing. It was what made Maya’s Notebook what it was– a magical kind of story where all the characters pass through troubles with grace and skill.


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Finding Focus Day 1: Jonathan Franzen’s Computer

Three summers ago, novelist Jonathan Franzen was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. One of the things I will never forget from the feature article on Franzen, written by Lev Grossman and published on August 12, 2010, is when Franzen mentions what he did with his computer. Grossman writes: Because Franzen believes you can’t write serious … Continue reading Finding Focus Day 1: Jonathan Franzen’s Computer

How Playing Scrabble Made Me A Better Writer

When I started playing Scrabble, I mistakenly thought it was a game about spelling and vocabulary. I never did very well, because I was more concerned with spelling fancy words than positioning my tiles effectively. But then I had an epiphany: Scrabble wasn’t really about spelling; it was about strategic arrangement. Being good at spelling … Continue reading How Playing Scrabble Made Me A Better Writer