January Reading Challenge: The Goldfinch
Had the momentum of the first two sections of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel maintained its thrilling and quickness, my need to put it down and work on other tasks would not have been as frequent. Luckily for me, in chapter ten, the momentum seemed to spark back up and I hungrily floated on the words of The Goldfinch to complete it, albeit a week late.
We follow Theo Decker, who is also our narrator, throughout his life. It’s not a smooth journey to say the least, and we are almost immediately met with unimaginable tragedy, or, he is. To say I could empathize with our narrator during this tragedy would be false, but the heartbreak that follows and stays with him is relatable, and as we meet him in his most obviously vulnerable state, as a child, he is a narrator whom I feel we can trust, even through his most consequential decisions. He finds friendship, love, and acquaintances who not only help move along the novel but move his character from adolescence to a slightly more disastrous state of adulthood than the rest of us. Hobie, however, is the character grounding this novel, and very obviously grounding Theo. Connected to our narrator through that first tragedy, Hobie restores furniture, and it is through his restorative practices that the entire web of people are connected; or more broadly, his art of restoration.
“‘Always remember the person we’re really working for is the person who’s restoring the piece a hundred years from now. He’s the one we want to impress.'” (418)
Will this novel hold relevance “a hundred years from now” or does it hold impressive nuggets of language, development, and meaning now? I say both, and the impressive nuggets are larger than you’re imagining: think nuggets the size of the world. In the above quote, the subject is furniture and its restoration; zoom out larger and it’s about restoring art; and then, what is art? What is art but beautiful, magic, sustaining, identifiable? Can it even be described? And how long are we going to continue having this conversation? Would someone just figure it out already?
“For humans – trapped in biology – there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died…Time destroyed us all soon enough. But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing – to break bonds stronger than the temporal – was a metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.
“There’s a pattern and we’re a part of it. Yet if you scratched very deep at that idea of pattern…you hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or though to of as light.” (695)
Sure, Theo may have been violently ill as a result from short-term withdrawal and experiencing hallucinations at the time of these thoughts, but I think he’s onto something.
“Because: if our secrets define us, as opposed to the face we show the world: then the painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am.” (764)
The build up to these reflections and philosophic explorations was great, and it is the build up that I believe led to the fall of momentum I mentioned previously. When a train is travelling at thrilling speeds and you’re new to the type of ride, there’s a point at which that newness wears off and you wonder: When will we see new views? What could happen that may be frightening, but would add a little spice to this journey? While Theo met a rush of life changing situations as a child and young adult, he slowed down [a little bit] in his adulthood. Or so it seemed. Theo’s battles with regret, identity, and doing the right thing are complicated, but Donna Tartt makes them easy to understand by pointing out their complicated nature through these reflections.
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here for my final thoughts on this novel, by pointing out the connections between parts of this story and parts of the Harry Potter series. No, seriously. Besides Theo receiving the nickname “Potter” from his friend Boris, and Hobie playing a character who seemed to meld the characteristics of Hagrid and Dumbledore, the most striking to me was an obvious allusion to the Mirror of Erised,* in which Theo sees his deceased mother.
“And when I looked away for a second and then looked back, I saw her reflection behind me, in the mirror. I was speechless. Somehow I knew I wasn’t allowed to turn around – it was against the rules, whatever the rules of the place were – but we could see each other, our eyes could meet in the mirror, and she was just as glad to see me as I was to see her.” (724)
After a long stretch of not putting his mother in the forefront, as she was for much of the first half of the novel, such a metaphysical experience with her showed how her role was still a large part of Theo’s psyche and while everything in his life seemed to be going wrong, her “embodied presence” made it look like things would be okay, no matter how Theo translated the events of his life.
I didn’t find this, or other allusions to J.K. Rowling’s own masterpiece off-putting or confusing, and I don’t think that has to do with my age as some reviews of Donna Tartt’s novel imply. And while I think these allusions did keep certain parts of the narration afloat in ways other techniques could not have, and it was refreshing to find these unexpected nuggets (I’m really into using the word “nuggets” lately) used with consistency.
If you are looking for reassurance that you can enjoy contemporary fiction, and can enjoy art talking about art the way Donna Tartt seamlessly uses her novel to do, The Goldfinch is the encouragement you need. She saves a “tell-all” speech for the very end, which, when you experience it, will be enlightening, thoughtful, and from a character who, looking back, is truly the only one who could give it. Another side of leaving this speech for the end is that you will be left transfixed at the literal words and meanings, as well as what it means for the 700 pages preceding it. Which, of course, is exactly what I want from a novel, especially one of this length.
A novel should never leave you; while you’re reading, during breaks from reading, and afterwards. Letting go of a novel should not be easy; it should gnaw at your mind for hours, days, weeks, years after you’ve read every page, especially the last. A novel should reflect and make the reader reflect: subtly and sometimes obviously, and with every word. A novel needs to stimulate, but also allow some breathing room which may seem tedious but is necessary in the end. A novel should be all of these things, and then more – and The Goldfinch is.
*Here is an explanation of the Mirror of Erised.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (New York: Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, Paperback 2015)
I read the book for my book club. Not sure I enjoyed it as much as you, but I’m glad I read it. It took a while to finish–there’s so much to absorb–but it has a great deal of depth to it as you so nicely discuss.