Why do we love the things we love? Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch could be classified in any number of ways: an orphan’s tale; an art-heist drama; a meditation on fate; or, more simply, as a love story between a boy and a sweet little painting of a yellow bird.
At over 700 pages, The Goldfinch is all of these things, some more satisfyingly executed than others. The sprawling narrative, which takes us from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, doesn’t cohere thematically until the final pages (a likely disaster in a less skilled writer’s hands), requiring a steady patience on the part of the reader. But we know from The Secret History and The Little Friend that Tartt is to be both trusted and revered, and so while The Goldfinch may frustrate at times, it is important, as with all things, to see its bigger picture, rather than to get lost in its more minor details.
Theo Decker is 13 when he and his mother wander into the Metropolitan Museum one fateful morning, only to have it explode. Covered in soot and surrounded by the carnage of blown-apart bodies and dangling wires, Theo (the lone survivor) finds himself the unlikely recipient of a dying man’s last words. The man, named Welty, charges Theo with delivering a signet ring to an address in the East Village, and, more importantly, implores the boy to save a certain painting from the smouldering gallery: Carl Fabritius’s trompe l’oeil masterpiece The Goldfinch.
What ensues stretches the limits of credulity: instead of returning the painting to somebody (anybody!), the boy smuggles it to Las Vegas, where his alcoholic, gambling father and fake-tanned evil stepmother live. In the throes of adolescence and grief, Theo becomes almost feral in this long Vegas interlude, sniffing glue and wandering through a landscape where “sand stood in the streets” with a Ukrainian misfit named Boris. This section’s strength is its portrayal of the incompetence of adults in dealing with children in crisis – the idiotic school counsellor, for example, who suggests Theo throw “ice cubes at a tree” – and its sensitivity to the abusive father/abused son dynamic. In one poignant scene, Theo reflects, “…inwardly I was almost drunk at the lift in his mood – the same flood of elation I’d felt as a small child when the silences broke, when his footsteps grew light again and you heard him laughing at something, humming in the shaving mirror.” The section’s weakness is as much its length as its episodic quality (this is where the reader’s patience may be tested the most) – the teenage boys do teenage things, and it goes on forever.
Finally, Theo is an adult, back in New York City and working for Welty’s brother, Hobie, an antiques restorer whose affection for the objects he repairs verges on heartbreaking. The furniture-restoration scenes – the writing as richly detailed as Flaubert’s – are some of the strongest in the novel, as they bring to life a tenderness between man and object that I’ve never seen so beautifully laid out on the page. “Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture,” Theo reflects, “…in the affectionate way he ran his hand along the dark, glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys, like pets.…To contemplate the lives of these dignified old highboys and secretaries – lives longer and gentler than human life – sank me into calm like a stone in deep water.”
Long scenes about furniture restoration, you say? Many of them. And why not? So much has been written about love between living beings that it is wonderfully surprising to find a novel more concerned with the love of things.
The plot takes a dramatic turn when Boris resurfaces in the novel, and the remaining pages are reminiscent of an art-heist action flick, complete with shootouts and people driving fancy cars through the dark streets of Amsterdam. It is a relief to find oneself at the end of this often over-the-top plot, and to finally, along with the now-ruminative narrator, question what has happened in the preceding pages. We have come to care not so much for the characters but deeply – so deeply – for the safety of this wonderful, magical painting of a stoic goldfinch. So many people die in this book; so much love remains unrequited – and yet the possibility that the painting might be lost forever is more harrowing than anything to do with mortal life or love.
For some of us, our greatest love affairs are with our possessions. Other humans may fail us – they may fail to see us; they may fail to stir us. Certain objects, however, seem as though they were made for us and for us alone. (Certain books seem as though they were written for us.) To capture the sense of an object and its power is a feat, truly. The Goldfinch, then, is a beautiful mediation on the agency of this special, immortal object and its power to inspire in a lost little boy a sense of interconnectedness with the world. “It is a glory and a privilege,” Theo tells us near the novel’s end, “to love what Death doesn’t touch.”
Marjorie Celona’s first novel, Y, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.