A Review of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”
Wow! What a book. Perhaps this is an unconventional way to begin a book review, but laying down Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch is a bit like disembarking from a wild carnival ride, complete with a sideshow of ghoulish but grinning faces along the way. Winding your way through more than seven hundred pages of sudden twists and turns of plot, along with peaks and plunges of emotion, you suddenly find that you are finished, and it is a bit like taking a deep breath once you discover that you are safe and all in one piece following a cataclysmic event. Lengthy for a modern novel, The Goldfinch is nevertheless such an arresting tale that the reader is compelled to keep following the mostly dark and scary narrative to its conclusion.
An amazing writer, Tartt brings to mind such seemingly disparate classic authors as Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dostoevsky. Tartt is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, because she deals with the plight of orphans (or unprotected children who are for all practical purposes orphans) in our contemporary culture, as Dickens dealt with orphans in the 1800’s. Today we romanticize Dickens stories of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, focusing on the nostalgic aspects of nineteenth century London. But for people of that time, stories of children who died before adulthood from inhaling soot day in and day out as chimney sweeps, or who were seduced into crime by pickpockets like Fager in Oliver Twist, or who were left to abusive relatives who didn’t want them, were not cute little sentimental stories. They were a reproach to the culture of the time, a call for compassion and reform. Similarly, Tartt dramatizes how children of our time who are either orphaned in actuality, or who are the offspring of irresponsible, incompetent or addicted parents, are prey to the exploitation of drug dealers, sexual abuse and seduction, and the lure of making money through crime.
After being introduced to Theodore Decker as a young man holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room, suffering from both influenza and drunkenness, the reader is quickly flashed back to the real start of the protagonist’s story, which literally begins with a bang. As a thirteen-year-old living in New York City, Theo Decker is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his single mother when an explosion changes his young life forever. A bomb, apparently the work of unidentified terrorists, kills his mother in another room of the museum and ties him forever to the family of a man who lies dying beside him. After months of living with a family of New York socialites whose son was a friend from school, meanwhile dealing with social workers and psychologists who try to help him cope with his loss, Theo’s father, a gambler and an alcoholic who had deserted him and his mother shows up to claim custody of him. From this point forward, this young man is plunged from a private school and from a relatively privileged existence in New York to a nightmare of contact with the underworld of organized crime. The novel is peopled with every element of urban society from the glamorous to gamblers and their gals to gangsters.
The novel is therefore a wealth of well-researched art history, rich with stories of the Old Masters and their masterpieces. It is a pleasure to read for the art history alone, but also for the insight into the unsavory connections between the highest and the lowest in our society.
The novel reminds me of The Great Gatsby in the sense that Theo is both an insider and an outsider in the world of New York’s old money. From the time that the dying old antiques dealer in the Met persuades the boy to take the Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch from the shambles of the museum to prevent its being stolen by looters, the adolescent’s life becomes entwined both with the old man’s former partner, who is a restorer of antiquities, as well as with estate sales of prestigious old families, art dealers and art thieves. The novel is therefore a wealth of well-researched art history, rich with stories of the Old Masters and their masterpieces. It is a pleasure to read for the art history alone, but also for the insight into the unsavory connections between the highest and the lowest in our society. As in Fitzgerald’s novel, Theo is exposed to the sometimes morally indifferent behavior of the heirs and heiresses when money and power are weighed in the balance. Theo’s fiancee Kitsy brings to the reader’s mind Fitzgerald’s Daisy of the earlier novel.
But more than any other author, Tartt resembles Dostoevsky in her approach to this story. For The Goldfinch is above all a dark journey into the psyche of a disturbed young man suffering from post-traumatic syndrome. Tartt even eludes to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in the novel. For Theo’s partner in his misadventures is a Russian immigrant child who like Theo is bereft of any significant adult support. The two of them are physically and emotionally abused by the adults in their lives after the deaths of their mothers. Theo’s friend Boris is a modern day counterpart of Dickens’s Artful Dodger, and they both are interesting psychological studies of young people trying to survive and find some meaning in a corrupt and terrifying world. The novel is full of surprises, not the least of which is the ending.