The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt

Little, Brown and Company | 2014

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe


Desperate for something good to read I downloaded Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, onto my Kindle. I had been feeling out-of-sorts, aggravated by the slings of my own private, outrageous fortune and all the technical problems that seem to accompany modern times. When I read the first few paragraphs, I sighed a sigh of relief—ahhh! To be in the hands of someone who knows how to write! I was in love; I had before me an interesting, well-told story…

Before I lived in New York I loved books set there, but after having lived there for over twenty years and now living elsewhere, I still love books set in New York, especially those that describe neighborhoods with which I’m familiar:

“Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as we sped by. Bollywood pop—turned down to a low, almost subliminal whine [the music, that is, inside the cab that Theo and his mother are riding in on their way to the Metropolitan Art Museum where the horrible incident that propels the story occurs]—spiraled and sparkled hypnotically, just at the threshold of my hearing. The leaves were just coming out on the trees. Delivery boys from D’Agostino’s and Gristede’s pushed carts laden with groceries; harried executive women in heels plunged down the sidewalks, dragging reluctant kindergartners behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrokers held their palms out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky…”

To be in the hands of a good writer is sublime. I know fewer pleasures more enjoyable than to read a writer whose craft is such that the text comes alive with a vibrancy that is enticing.

At the MET a terrorist bomb detonates. It kills Theo’s beloved mother and an elderly man, whose death he witnesses. Before the man dies, he gives Theo a large garnet ring and an address of where to take it.  He also urges Theo to take a certain painting that has fallen from the walls—a painting of goldfinch chained to its perch, painted by one C. Fabritius in Amsterdam in 1654.  There is a girl with him, who, like Theo, survives the explosion. This is Pippa, who, in an instant, becomes the love of his life.

The subject of The Goldfinch is loss—Theo misses his mother horribly. Ms. Tartt writes convincingly about the experience one undergoes when he loses the person he loves most—the disbelief, the desire to stop living oneself, the lack of understanding by others, the dread, and the slow, painful healing that eventually takes place.

At first Theo stays with the Barbours, who live on Park Avenue and whose son Andy is his friend. When he goes to the address in the Village to return the ring he meets Hobi, Welty’s partner (Welty is the man who died at the MET) in their furniture repair and antique business. Hobi is a big, gentle giant of a man who is guileless and so expert at his craft that most cannot tell his work from original antiques.

Then Theo’s dad and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up and take him to Las Vegas, where they live way out in the desert. At school Theo meets Boris, a Russian émigré, who is utterly irrepressible. (Ms. Tartt is a master in describing friendship.) Theo and Boris become inseparable, until Boris takes up with a girlfriend—they drink, take a copious amount of all kinds of drugs, and engage in petty thievery. At one point Boris says, “None of us ever finds enough kindness in the world, do we?”

So drawn was I into this story that I preferred its company to talking with friends. When Theo’s dad is killed in a traffic accident, probably a suicide, as he had accumulated such a gambling debt that debtors were coming to the house with baseball bats, even though he wasn’t an admirable character, I felt sad, the way one still feels sad when a relative one doesn’t especially like dies.

My love of Theo induced me to overlook his faults. When he made a great deal of money dishonestly, by selling fake antiques, even after he murders, still I loved him. He is, after all, the depressed narrator of our story. After Theo’s dad’s death, rather than leave his fate to the vicissitudes of the state, he leaves on the Greyhound bus and makes his way back to New York. He takes Xandra’s neglected dog, Popper, with him, smuggled him  into a luggage bag:

“Then—only an hour or two along—I woke, with the bus stopped, to find Popper sitting quietly with the tip of his nose poking out of the bag and a middle aged black lady with bright pink lipstick standing over me, thundering: ‘You can’t have that dog on the bus.’

“I stared at her, disoriented. Then, much to my horror, I realized he was no random passenger but the driver herself, in cap and uniform.

“’Do you hear what I said?’ she repeated, with an aggressive side-to-side head tic. She was wide as a prizefighter; the nametag, atop her impressive bosom, read Denese. ‘You can’t have that dog on this bus.’ Then—impatiently—she mad a flapping hand gesture as if to say: get him the hell back in that bag!

“I covered his head up—he didn’t seem to mind—and sat with rapidly shrinking insides. We were stopped at the town called Effingham, Illinois: Edward Hooper houses, stage-set courthouse, a hand-lettered banner that said Crossroads of Opportunity!

“The driver swept her finger around. ‘Do any of you people back here have objections to this animal?’

“The other passengers in back—(unkempt handlebar-moustache guy; grown woman with braces; anxious black mom with elementary-school girl; W.C. Fields looking oldster with nose tubes and oxygen canister—all seemed too surprised to talk, though the little girl, eyes round, shook her head almost imperceptibly: no.

“The driver waited. She looked around. Then she turned back to me. ‘Okay. That’s good news for you and the pooch, honey. But, if any— ‘she wagged her finger at me. ‘—if any those other passenger back here complains about you having an animal on board, at any point, I’m going to have to make you get off. Understand?’”

After a while, I realized that rather than resolve any of the dilemmas that confront Theo, like, is he really going to marry Kitsey, whom he is fond of but not in love with, or will he declare his love to Pippa and propose to her? Instead of answering this straight away, as I would feel compelled to do were I writing this novel, in the next chapter Ms. Tartt changes the subject entirely. After Theo has shot one of the men pursuing them for the painting, he holes up in a hotel room in Amsterdam and contemplates suicide, but in the next chapter he’s back at Hobi’s in New York apologizing for all the trouble his deceptive business practices have caused him…

For all the smoke screens our esteemed writer creates (I began to think the book as a bit of a spoof); as hugely entertained and as deeply affected as I was by it, ultimately, I was unmoved. This is not to say I wouldn’t give it an A1 endorsement and suggest it to anyone who wants a really good read.

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