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The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

”And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it--although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story….

Because--what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise ( as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity; thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

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The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1654

This story begins with an act of terror in modern day New York, but this story could also be said to have started in 1654 when Fabritius, with deft hand, painted his masterpiece, a luminescent bird, a Goldfinch. Theo Decker is a child, with a mother obsessed with art. She frequently would skip buying lunch to have enough money to go to a museum. It is easy to give up food when one is about to nourish the soul. She in particular wants to see The Goldfinch and she wants to share that experience with Theo. 

”She’d never seen a great painting in person until she was eighteen and moved to New York and she was eager to make up for lost time--’pure bliss, perfect heaven,’ she’d said, up to the neck in art books and poring over the same old slides (Manet, Vuillard) until her vision started to blur, (‘It’s crazy’, she’d said, ‘but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.’)”

”We have art in order not to die from the truth.”

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In 1992 Donna Tartt had a pixie cuteness that inspired literary crushes from coast to coast.

Donna Tartt is a master of language, but she really excels when she is composing people. This description of Theo’s mother manifested her before me as if she were flesh and blood in the room with me. 

”She had black hair, fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light in them, and in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic. In fact she was half Irish, half Cherokee, from a town in Kansas near the Oklahoma border; and she liked to make me laugh by calling herself an Okie even though she was as glossy and nervy and stylish as a racehorse.”

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The Dead Goldfinch by George Elgar Hicks

While at the museum a terrorist bomb explodes at a moment when Theo is separated from his mother. He never sees her again. Somehow in the confusion he walks out with an antique dealer’s ring that was placed in his hands by the dying owner, and the painting, The Goldfinch

Theo is placed with his friend Andy’s family for a time. They live on Park Avenue, and though they try their best to make him feel welcome it is impossible for him to ever feel like anything other than a charity case. 

”Mrs. Barbour was from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty--a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room.”

For all Mrs. Barbour’s money and perceived social power she can not trump one thing...a blood relative. She feels guilty and relieved when Theo’s long gone, long lost, father appears. He has the scent of insurance money in his nose. He has a gambling addiction that rains money when he wins, but when he loses the vig requires a blizzard of money to fix. He sells off everything of his wife’s possessions that can be sold, and hauls Theo out to Las Vegas. 


His father acted in a handful of bit parts in Hollywood for a few years before washing out. 

”From the genial cursing, his infrequent shaving, the relaxed way he talked around the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, it was almost as if he were playing a character: some cool guy from the fifties noir or maybe Ocean’s Eleven, a lazy, sated gangster with not much to lose. Yet even in the midst of his laid-backness he still had that crazed and slightly heroic look of schoolboy insolence, all the more stirring since it was drifting toward autumn, half-ruined and careless of itself.”

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I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to make Donna Tartt look like Gertrude Stein. Seriously who do I need to talk to about this?

Theo’s father is not interested in parenting any more now than he was when he lived with Theo and his wife. In other words Theo is turned loose allowed to roam, and do whatever he wants to do. Theo meets Boris, a Russian kid with even less supervision than Theo, and falls into a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and alcohol abuse that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The need to escape becomes a pattern that by necessity has to become more and more creative as he swims his way through a sea of pills and booze into adulthood. 

”On the marble top of the dresser I crushed one of my hoarded old-style Oxycontins, cut it and drew it into lines with my Christie’s card and--rolling the crispest bill in my wallet--leaned to the tables, eyes damp with anticipation: ground zero, bam, bitter taste in the back of the throat and then the gust of relief, falling backward on the bed as the sweet old punch hit me square in the heart: pure pleasure, aching and bright; far from the tin-can clatter of misery.”

I wonder if Tartt’s writing buddy, Bret Easton Ellis, was a consultant for the descriptions of drug use that are sprinkled throughout the novel. 

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Bret Easton Ellis: drug, party, sex consultant.

Meanwhile The Goldfinch follows along with Theo. 

Before leaving New York Theo returns the ring, that he was given at the museum, to a man named Hobie who turns out to be a business partner of the deceased man. Hobie is a furniture restoring expert. He keeps parts from unsalvageable antiques and uses those pieces to replace damaged sections on salvageable antiques. He also creates new pieces of furniture by marrying filigree to a plain piece as long as the wood dates from the same period. He is an artist. He calls these pieces of furniture his changelings. Theo soon realizes that most people are looking for a deal/steal and he has no difficulty acting the rube to play on their greed. He begins selling these changelings as real antiques. If someone complains he gives their money back and at the same time creates provenance that the antique came from their collection. He uses that provenance to sell the next person. Brilliant, illegal, but brilliant. 

He meets Pippa, who stays with Hobie from time to time. She was also hurt in the blast at the museum. When circumstances allow him to escape, the hell-hole called Las Vegas, he lands back on Hobie’s doorstep or should I say in much better proximity to Pippa.

”Terrified she was going to catch me staring, unable to wrench my eyes away, I watched her studying my iPod with bent head: ears rosy-pink, raised line of scar tissue slightly puckered underneath the scalding-red hair. In profile her downcast eyes were long, heavy-lidded, with a tenderness that reminded me of the angels and page boys in the Northern European Masterworks book I’d checked and re-checked from the library.”

Oh yeah, he’s got it bad...for life. Pippa is forever linked with his mother, not because she knew his mother, but because she entered his life at the very moment his mother left it. 

”You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”

Theo hasn’t been able to bear looking at The Goldfinch for a long time. It is an overwhelming cauldron of pain, guilt, beauty, loss, and lust on the order of Gollum’s passion for the One-Ring. If he looks at it too often he will become totally possessed. 

”I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on the powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.”

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Fabritius Self-Portrait

So there is a painting, stolen, carried all over the country, lost, found, stolen again, and finally found once more. So there is a boy blown up, lost, found, lost, lost, lost, and dare we to hope he is to be found once more? This book is full of beautiful, lyrical language, and a cast of characters that could have competed with a book from the Victorian era. I couldn’t help rooting for Theo in the same way that I rooted for David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. Even when he is surrounded by people, even people that would gladly offer him whatever help he could desire, he is lonely, caught in a cycle of grief that can’t be shared or unburdened. The life he was supposed to have was taken from him, and now he is chained to a bastardized life like Fabitius’s Goldfinch. A life that can never quite be understood, and a life made nearly unbearable by the memory of flight. 

”For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time--so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And 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, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”