Saturday Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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While I was reading The Goldfinch, I looked around the BART train one morning and my eyes lit upon a cryptic poster inviting me to discover the real truth about our greatest domestic catastrophe, courtesy of a group called Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911Truth, for short). The poster, which I keep seeing around the train, seemed a good corollary to the novel I had just started. In the aftermath of tragedies, people become obsessive, do strange things. As the tragedy recedes and is sewn up into the past, these strange things appear increasingly weird to casual observers.

In Donna Tartt’s new novel, a young boy named Theo is caught up in another New York catastrophe, the fictional bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dying stranger (himself remembering an earlier catastrophe) instructs Theo to save Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting of a goldfinch, which Theo then proceeds to lug around for the next decade, a beloved albatross threatening visits from Interpol at every moment. The parallels with the AE911Truth squad quickly run out, but I thought about them raising the money for their BART print campaign, watching the video footage for ten years, and I was reminded that we are none of us prepared to deal with tragedy.

In Tartt’s fictional tragedy, Theo gains a painting but loses a mother. He lives for a while with the wealthy family of a classmate, before his shitbag father and girlfriend Xandra appear from nowhere and squire him away to Las Vegas. In this hot, empty limbo, Theo meets another waif named Boris, also with a shitbag father, also damaged and lovable. The two boys adopt Xandra’s neglected white dog Popper; they take a lot of drugs and take care of the dog and love each other with the fierce romance that is only possible in adolescence. Although Theo spends the entirety of the novel pining for the mostly off-screen Pippa, a fellow survivor of the bombing, it is his relationship with Boris that forms the emotional core of the story.

Theo eventually leaves Las Vegas and finds himself in the furniture shop of the dying man from the Met. He finds himself back in the home of the patrician family of his classmate. He finds himself reunited with Boris after many years apart. For reasons concerning the goldfinch, he finally finds himself in Amsterdam with a pill problem and a gun in his hand. Things get very lofty at the end of Theo’s recollections, when he looks back at the wreckage of his still not-very-advanced years and issues a somewhat chaotic treatise on life and art and his own version of Non, je ne regrette rien. He narrates, “I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost…”

I had never read Donna Tartt’s cult favorite, The Secret History (which prompted Alexander Nazaryan to write in a recent review for Newsweek, “there are two types of readers: those who know that Donna Tartt’s 1992 The Secret History is the finest debut in late 20th century American fiction and those whose opinion can be safely discounted”). Since my expectations for The Goldfinch were constructed entirely upon the enthusiasms of other people for Donna Tartt, I felt it necessary to read her first novel after I finished this, her third. And I enjoyed The Secret History. But there are some things, like Heathers or Star Wars, that need to be watched or read at precisely the right moment in your development or you are doomed not to really get them, and to forever get the side eye from those who do.

There is a moment in The Secret History when the young protagonist from modest origins tries to convince an effete classics professor to let him into an exclusive class by embellishing his California roots. He narrates: “I gave him the spiel. Orange groves, failed movie stars, lamplit cocktail hours by the swimming pool, cigarettes, ennui.” For whatever reason I have fixated upon this insignificant passage as being emblematic of my main problem with Donna Tartt, whom I find guilty, somehow, of simultaneously relying on shorthand, belaboring certain points, and generally being unconvincing. You can’t just say “cigarettes and ennui” and the Red Sea parts. By this method, The Secret History is “trust funds, spectral country mansion, incest, someone named Bunny, murder, suicide.” (It’s Dead Poets’ Society meets Cruel Intentions.) In The Secret History, a low-born fellow tries to run with the perverse high-born; both that novel and The Goldfinch reminded me of aspirational nineteenth-century novels that were written for regular ladies to experience the thrill of fancy life.

The Goldfinch is equally full of class markers, comical names (Kitten), kinds of antiques, and names of schools, so that the reader occasionally has the sense of being bludgeoned with a sledgehammer from some very tony shop. The nineteenth-century effect is somewhat exacerbated by elements of dialogue that are actually just bizarre. Why, why should the Albany-born Mr. Hobie, restorer of antique furniture, say things like “He was a bitter old sod” or “It takes some people that way, the sea”? (Perhaps this is where Theo learns some of his phrasing: “…I knew not a word of Dutch.”)

Paradoxically, while my main complaint about Donna Tartt is that her writing can feel like a class sledgehammer, I enjoyed the parts of the The Goldfinch where the sledgehammer came from below. Tartt perfectly capitalizes on the horror that the urban educated American has for the imagined American of the sprawl. When Theo’s father arrives in New York with Xandra in tow, with “her whiskey voice, her muscular arms; the Chinese character tattooed on her big toe; her long square fingernails with the white tips painted on; her earrings shaped like starfish,” we are outraged at the difference between his paramour and Theo’s mother, who was short on money but long on taste. For their last big meal in New York, Xandra and Mr. Decker take Theo to “a touristy restaurant I was surprised my dad had chosen.” During said dinner, Xandra returns from her smoke break, pulls her “massive, bright-red plate of manicotti towards her,” and enthuses: “Looks awesome!” Theo’s dad concurs, even though he’d been “known to complain about overly tomatoey, marinara-drenched pasta dishes exactly like the plate in front of him.”

Theo’s father and Xandra take Theo, who has never been outside of New York for longer than a week, to live in Las Vegas, in a housing development out of Arrested Development’s Sudden Valley: no trash collection, no pizza delivery, pool but no furniture, foreclosure signs, neighboring homes being reclaimed by the desert. When Theo arrives in Las Vegas he is faced, for the first time, with “loop after faceless loop of shopping plazas, Circuit City, Toys ‘R’ Us, supermarkets and drugstores…” He asks Xandra “ ‘Don’t you have public transportation out here?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘What do people do?’ Xandra cocked her head to the side. ‘They drive?’ she said, as if I was a retard who’d never heard of cars.”

Theo’s situation is horrible not just because his mother is dead and his father is a shitbag; his father has become a lowbrow suburban shitbag. Theo reports: “it seemed that they had celebrated their ‘anniversary’ not long before my mother died, with dinner at Delmonico Steakhouse and the Jon Bon Jovi concert at the MGM Grand. (Bon Jovi! Of all the many things I was dying to tell my mother…it seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact.)” The Goldfinch invites you to revel in your own snobbishness, because Mr. Decker and Xandra are actually malign forces in the text; Theo’s dad is a legitimate villain, in addition to the baseline villainy of being sprawl-living, non-public-transportation-using, and bad-food-eating. The Goldfinch has been described everywhere as “Dickensian,” and it is; but Theo’s father and erstwhile stepmother reminded me of no one so much as the Thenardiers in Les Miserables.

Donna Tartt is catnip for educated people who want to read entertaining but not difficult things about lofty topics and cosmopolitan people. And despite my problems with this book–that it’s big and uneven and sometimes goofy–I’m basically on board. I loved Boris and Popper and the bad parenting and the sojourn in the desert. And the paintings. When I finished The Goldfinch I took a trip to Washington DC, and on a free afternoon I went to the National Gallery. I took a picture of the building and texted it to a long-lost friend, the one bona fide aesthete of my acquaintance, whom I know to be systematically visiting every great museum in the United States. “What should I see?” I typed. (Within seconds he replied: “Lavender Mist. Who is this?”) I wandered through the paintings, looking especially for animals and birds. I saw Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening and admired the glossy, obsequious hounds in J.G. Shaddick, The Celebrated Sportsman. I saw ladies strolling and odalisques lolling. The gentle eyes of Edward Hicks’ Bucks County cows. Dutch dogs and pheasants and fruit and be-ruffled sleeves. Singer Sargent’s serene Cairo Pavement. I imagined a catastrophe, and plucking one of these off the wall in my panic. And I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. But I took pictures, and I took them home with me, a series of smaller thefts. What can I say–I’m a sucker for beautiful things.

Lydia Kiesling is a staff writer for The Millions, where she writes criticism, essays, and the semi-regular Modern Library Revue. She lives in San Francisco. More from this author →