The Goldfinch is a Masterpiece

The Goldfinch (2013)
Donna Tartt
Little Brown 9780-03160-55437, 784 pages
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The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
Until I read The Goldfinch would have said that the best post-9/11 novel was Jess Walter’s The Zero (2006). (Sorry, but I found Jonathan Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be pretentious.) Donna Tartt hasn’t just written an amazing 9/11 musing–it’s not even about 9/11 directly–it’s among the best books of the century and might well be a certifiable masterpiece.

The book’s central character is Theodore Decker, but its star is Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-54). I doubt that name rings bells. He was Rembrandt’s prized pupil–one so gifted that several paintings once attributed to Rembrandt are now thought to be his instead. Alas, only a handful of Fabritius’ works still exist because he and over a hundred others died when a gunpowder magazine exploded in Delft. A quarter of the town, including Fabritius’ studio, burned. Among the works that survived is the delicate namesake of Tartt’s novel.

The novel is narrated by Theo and covers his life from ages 13 to 27. You might first think that Theo’s troubles began at 13, but he doesn’t believe that, and maybe you shouldn’t either. He and his mother, Audrey, are on their way to meet with school officials on a day Theo would normally be in class, were it not for some unsettling trouble that he and a classmate got into. Being that they are consummate New Yorkers, their trip to the school begins with a trip to a café and, to escape a vile taxi and get out the rain, a short stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view The Goldfinch, on loan from a museum in The Hague. Theo is very bright, but he’s also 13 and there’s just so much culture a boy can take. What really attracts his eye is a comely redhead about his age. When his mother decides to take in another gallery, Theo stays behind in the gift shop in hope of getting another glance at the girl. And then it happens––a massive terrorist-planted bomb explodes sending debris, dust, and body parts flying. Hundreds die and numerous priceless artworks are lost. Is The Goldfinch among them?

Theo pulls himself out of the rubble in time to encounter the only other living soul in the gift shop, a mortally wounded elderly man who was with the redheaded girl. Before he expires, he presses a ring of cryptic design upon Theo and gives him a Greenwich Village address to which he should deliver it. But first, it seems, Theo has to find a guardian––as he learns several days later, his mother is among the dead. The Goldfinch has drawn Dickens analogies, and there are certainly Oliver Twist parallels in the way orphan Theo will be bounced around, starting with the upper crust Barbour family, which takes him in temporarily because he was among the only kids who was ever nice to their nerdy son, Andy. Thus begins a saga that will next take Theo to Las Vegas, where the father who walked out on him and his mother resides with his ditzy dye-job girlfriend Xandra. Larry Decker is better at being a small-time gambler trying to swim with big fish than being a caregiver, and largely leaves Theo to his own devices. Among those devices is Boris, the worldly son of a rich Russian. Or is he Polish? Or Ukrainian? Or something else? The two boys experience a misspent adolescence that involves very little that’s healthy or wholesome.

Tartt’s novel is long and sprawling, but nothing is wasted. Everything you encounter early will come back into play. Circumstances send Theo back to New York, where he meets “Hobie,” the man to whom he delivers the ring and who teaches Theo one of his future occupations: antiques, though suffice it to say that Hobie’s restoration work is more on the level than some of Theo’s pursuits. The red-haired girl comes back into play, as will the Barbour family, Boris, and vice. We’ll also detour to Amsterdam, go inside European crime syndicates, experience New York snobbery, and plumb the depth of despair before the book comes to a denouement that is, at once, concluding but not conclusive. And what ties it altogether is the fate of the Fabritius canvas. Think you know where it is? You’re probably wrong.  

This is not just a great story; it’s also a profound book about loss, desire, and obsession. It asks us to take a hard look at what we value, why we want those things, and why we sometimes pass on the things we want above all else. It also asks us to ponder what we are willing to forgive in the name of some greater love, and the things for which can and cannot forgive ourselves. Perhaps most of all, it forces us to consider that in the battle between nature and nurture, apples might not fall as far from rotten trees as we might hope they would. Can we change our essential natures? Are we the architects of our own misfortune? I’ve called this a post-9/11 novel not just because of the terrorist/bomb/wrecked lives parallels, but also because of the aforementioned big questions over which tragedy has a way of making us muse. Kudos to Donna Tartt for a novel that is at once provocative and profound. --Rob Weir 


Jan said...

I concur with "masterpiece."
Minor miss on detail in review - Theo & Mom didn't get to a café on the fateful a.m. - that's why he said he had never gone so long without eating and finally found takeout in the fridge. I lent my book but I thought it was clear Boris is Ukrainian.

Jan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Boris said he was Ukrainian at one point, but he also says Russian elsewhere and he seems to speak Chechen and Polish, the latter better than Russian. I think he's supposed to be ambiguous so that we can never truly trust him--one of the book's many charms. Rob

Jan said...

Reading more closely, I comprehend that the reviewer was saying they were on their way to eat. This points up how immersive the book is, that I remember these details after several weeks. Very visceral, with staying power. Brava.