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Free to be You and Me

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch
Free to be You and Me

It is hard to overemphasize how good a novel The Goldfinch is on purely formal grounds. Yes, it is long, and, yes, many of the descriptions are very involved, but these are subjective interests, not evaluations of quality. Those very long descriptions—of a depressed Las Vegas suburb where most of the residents seem to be something between squatters and vagrants, of the techniques involved in restoring antique furniture, et al.—are fascinatingly detailed and, I expect, provide the evidence for why it seems to take its creator ten years to write a novel. Donna Tartt, the critically acclaimed author of A Secret History (1992) and The Little Friend (2003), has given us a novel of such extraordinary breadth and depth that even its long digressions are worthy of philosophical exploration.

One cannot think back on The Goldfinch without Dickens coming to mind. The book has been compared to David Copperfield and the ever-present Oliver Twist, but neither book provides a cypher to The Goldfinch‘s mysteries. Tartt gives us a fully twenty-first century story, populated by characters, who remind us of Fagin and the Artful Dodger, but who just as much remind us of Falstaff, or of St. Peter for that matter. And yet those characters easily invite us into their internal worlds because they are so identifiable as contemporaries, who share the traits all humans either have or recognize in others: pride, humility, diligence, laziness, anger, patience, selfishness, generosity.

The Goldfinch centers on Theo Decker (hard to miss the importance of that first name), who tells the story in flashback from his late twenties. When his mother takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because they have a few minutes to spare before going to a disciplinary meeting with the principal at Theo’s school, the thirteen-year old boy experiences a life-changing event that causes him to come into possession of an important painting by a 16th century artist named Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt and teacher of Vermeer. The painting is of a beautiful, tiny goldfinch perched on a rod extending from a birdhouse attached to a blank wall. The goldfinch stands proudly facing to the viewer’s right not quite in profile and one notices a tiny, linked chain attached to its right leg. The painting’s journey from the time it is stuffed into Theo’s backpack forms the major peg upon which Tartt hangs her plot, but the novel’s central ideas revolve around Theo’s movement from teen-ager to man.

And ideas there are aplenty. Art and its mysterious effect upon humanity, integrity, friendship, compulsion, predestination and free will, heritage and its place in a person’s maturation, even the very notion of being itself—all have their major place not only in the novel’s twists and turns of plot and characterization but also in the novelist’s prosaic ruminations through Theo’s musings throughout. Tartt often shows the depth of her understanding of religion and philosophy but never violates Theo’s character as a largely self-educated, sometimes prep-school attending, thoughtful observer of the human condition. She seems to me mostly to espouse a religiously inclined humanism, but her love for the mystery of life and her insight into the complex make-up of human nature makes this a novel in which the Christian can find food both to sustain faith and to challenge it. What more could one want from a rousing good story?

Lest the reader think otherwise, this is indeed a rousing good story. Though some of the major characters are able to discuss Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the book involves people from all walks of life as it moves between high society socialites, art swindlers, angelic students, low life gamblers, Russian mobsters, Las Vegas hookers, and humble antique dealers. The locales include New York’s Upper East Side, the Nevada desert, Greenwich Village, and Amsterdam to name only the major stops along Theo’s journey. The Goldfinch is a story of love, revenge, betrayal, theft, loyalty, aspiration and resignation.

A novel like The Goldfinch comes along only once in a very great while; clichéd as that statement is, it is no less true. Though demanding the commitment of a long read, the effort will be hugely rewarding. Discussing it might be another matter because the book is so rich in talking points, a group might need to meet several times just to satisfy a modicum of the thoughts likely to be provoked by it.

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