Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: tethered to heartbreaking loss
“The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s first novel in 10 years, is a beautifully written page-turner about a grieving young man trying to recover from the violent death of his mother. Tartt reads Oct. 25 at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Goldfinch” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday in the Microsoft auditorium of The Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
by Donna Tartt
Little, Brown, 771 pp., $30
The Nietzsche quote “We have art in order not to die from the truth” prefaces a section in Donna Tartt’s masterful page-turner “The Goldfinch”; it elegantly sums up something the book’s hero is, for most of its length, too young to understand. Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, loses his beloved mother in a bombing attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1990s. He manages to escape, taking with him in his suffocating confusion a small yellow-hued painting by the Dutch painter Fabritius; a goldfinch, tethered to a perch, gazing out at the viewer.
And so begins a long, sad, beautifully written first-person adventure for Theo and for the painting, chained together by fate. The bird — “the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself” — reminds him of his mother, and the painting of a day he can never forget; he doesn’t know how to give the painting back, and isn’t sure he wants to. Over 14 years Theo wanders — to the home of a wealthy friend, where the calm and order help him believe that perhaps he’ll be all right; to Las Vegas, with his shady father, who comes to claim him, and where “all trace of [his mother] seemed burned away in the thin desert air”; back to New York again; and ultimately overseas. Through it all, he fights against a terrible loneliness, with drugs, alcohol and the wrong women.
You can see echoes of Tartt’s blockbuster first novel, 1992’s “The Secret History,” here — the poignant solitude of the young male protagonist; the long days spent drunk or high, as if time was something not just to kill, but to annihilate; the desperate attempts to squash a deed that can’t be undone. And you find, throughout the pages, tiny homages to Dickens: a curiosity shop, an Artful Dodger, a Miss Havisham, a lovely girl named Pippa who’s called Pip. (Tartt has a little fun with this: Theo reports that the other section of his Honors English class is reading “Great Expectations,” while he’s instead assigned “Walden.”) The plot feels Dickensian — a young man, orphaned for much of the book, trying to find love, fortune and a place to belong — as does the structure. You follow “The Goldfinch” breathlessly, as you would a serial; things keep happening to Theo, and putting the book down seems unthinkable.
Like her two previous works (Tartt produces a novel every decade, following “The Secret History” with “The Little Friend”), “The Goldfinch” is long and eventful, with a few passages that might have stood a little trimming. (Theo’s time in Las Vegas, mostly spent drunk, feels overlong — though, surely, it felt that way for Theo too.) And its ending, though hardly a fairy tale, feels rather neatly wrapped up.
But once again, Tartt has demonstrated a remarkable ability to combine page-turning plot twists with achingly beautiful prose. You may not always like Theo, but you stay with him, remembering that this is, at heart, a boy still longing for his mother (whose character haunts the pages of this novel like a smiling ghost). It’s a story about the love of beautiful things; about spending youth searching for something undiscoverable; about how life can shackle us to a perch, unable to move forward. “There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall, and a sense of no escape,” Theo tells us, of the painting. “Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching.”
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.