“When I looked at the painting…Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature—fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”
So the narrator—Theo Decker—describes the eponymous painting that becomes his obsession, his identity, and the catalyst for the majority of the plot in Donna Tartt’s latest novel: The Goldfinch. The book begins with the death of Theo’s mother in the wake of a terrorist attack within a museum, his subsequent theft of the Goldfinch painting, then follows the precocious teenager’s attempt to navigate life as an orphan within the sprawling metropolis that is New York City. Luckily, the devastated adolescent finds solace in the form of two guardians: the Barbours, an upper-class, sophisticated, yet flawed family that welcome Theo into their home; and Hobie, an antiques repairman that Theo finds after his business partner is killed within the same terrorist attack as his mother.
This first section begins incredibly strong—wallowing in atmospheric details that firmly situate the reader within the pandemonium of the attack and Theo’s rollercoaster range of emotions in its aftermath. A sequence that details Theo’s disoriented escape out of the charnel museum and into the rainy city streets evokes a grim psychological state that’s amplified to devastating effect upon his return to an empty apartment, where his mother is still missing. Tartt’s astounding ability to imbue sensory details into a manifestation of dread transform this simple scene set within a small apartment of a thirteen-year-old boy anxiously awaiting for the return of his mother into a torture chamber of agony. Every passing car, tick of the clock, groan of the floorboards becomes an omen of doom, as it becomes increasingly, obvious, and disturbingly clear that our narrator’s mother will never be returning to this apartment.
While too many books in this genre often drown themselves in the maudlin emotions that surround such a traumatic event, Tartt wisely eschews such melodrama in favor of focusing on Theo’s utter confusion and sense of existential self-removal. Though Theo certainly narrates with shades of the Holden Caulfield variety, his voice remains original and compelling throughout—his range of emotions always relatable and distinct: from the depths of depression, to laugh-out-loud descriptions, to the haze of drug addiction, to his suffocating love for friends and family, to the permanent abyss in his soul left by his mother’s death.
The real motions of the plot come into the play when Theo finds the gregarious giant Hobie, who takes an instant liking to the boy. More importantly, Hobie serves as Theo’s connection to Pippa—a young girl that caught his eye just before the museum attack that connects him to Hobie’s business partner. Nonetheless, the friendly oldster and the abandoned adolescent find an immediate connection—kindred souls with an unspoken bond of familial love for one another in the midst of having lost people so important to their daily lives.
The arrival of Theo’s father—a deadbeat gambler that fled to Vegas after years of abuse and mean-spirited drunkenness—marks the major next section of the novel. Though he appears to have turned a corner since abandoning him, Theo’s father returns as a supposedly new man ready to resume his position as Theo’s father in Las Vegas. Here, at his new school in the desert, Theo meets the unforgettable Boris—a Russian immigrant and veritable alcoholic in his burgeoning teenage years that introduces Theo to the wild world of habitual drug use, while also providing a genuine and anchoring friendship amongst Theo’s roiling lifestyle.
Although the former and latter third are fantastic, this section remains the absolute highlight of the piece. Tartt peppers in small pieces of plot amongst incredible character development and allows even the most minor details to have incredibly awarding pay-offs, while still successfully managing multiple levels of narrative progression both in plot and theme. Specifically: the exploration of confused adolescence, Theo’s descent into drug addiction, the foundation of his friendship with Boris—all of these major milestone occurring while the inevitable dread of the stolen painting and Theo’s escalating drug abuse loom over each event with palpable dread.
Moreover, Tartt ingeniously deceives the audience by repeatedly introducing an ostensibly positive element into Theo’s life (namely his father’s newfound resolve) only to yank the rug away and reveal his true intentions at the worst possible moment to superb emotional effect. By the climax of this section, Tartt converges all these small set-ups sprinkled just moments before into a single catastrophic moment that has been so brilliantly, invisibly constructed that its relentless downfall is capable of leaving the reader visibly shaking in its vivid and painful execution. As Tartt completely detonates Theo’s world with applause-worthy aplomb before transitioning into the concluding chapters, she has already solidified this portion of the novel as prose that deserves to be recognizes and commended as some of the best contemporary writing in the field.
Although still engaging and expertly emotional, the last third remains the weakest of the major sections. Without going into spoilers, Theo has now become engaged in a variety of illicit affairs within the art community at large. All the while, the constant in Theo’s life of his purloined Goldfinch painting remains the unsubtle, yet perfect metaphor for his life of continuous change and simultaneous inescapable return to fate. This conclusion is only marred by the virtue of the plot suddenly overwhelming the previous character-driven execution of the previous section, along with certain passages of expository spouting that break the fourth-wall in their occasionally clunky reveals.
Still, the final chapters provide an opportunity for Theo to expound upon the novel’s various themes—most prominently, those pertaining to the importance of art in relation to the human condition and its legacy for the future. These passages sing with some of Tartt’s most gorgeous prose, and articulate the profound influence a single piece of art can instill over the life of both a single person and society at large. Conversely, this demonstrates how destructive the loss of single piece of art can hold for a society capable of permitting such destruction without calling for greater alarm and caution.
All of these ideas, of course, proven through Fabritius’ Goldfinch. A painting whose existence has come to define Theo’s life for the best and worst: the painting that led his mother to an early grave, that became his connection to her in death, that led to his meeting Hobie, then his best friend Boris, then to all the enormous highs and lows of conclusion—all due to the existence of this painting.
Moreover, the painting so perfectly personifies how such an entity can be responsible for the confluence of uncontrollable factors that later govern one’s life, as viewed through Theo’s own narrative. While at times, Theo’s life trajectory plunges to the absolute depths of despair—rendering destitute portraits of a life seeming to spin hopelessly out of control—Tartt’s final pages explicate in moving detail how the landscape between suffering and sublime often exist within the same vortex occupied and exemplified through art. Like the metaphorical Goldfinch chained to his perch, Theo recognizes that so much of the heartache in his life has also made manifest those moments worth living for: his friendship with Boris, his love for Pippa, his kinship with Hobie. More importantly, he recognizes that in telling this story how he’s made possible the transformation of his suffering and the sublime into a work of art as immortal and profound as the very painting responsible for inspiring him to produce it. As Tartt writes in a final passage:
“And as much I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”