Donna Tartt — The Goldfinch Unchained


The Goldfinch, Carol Fabritius (detail), 1654, Mauritshuis museum, Netherlands

The Goldfinch is a very small oil painting of a finch chained to its perch that is on display in a museum in the Netherlands. It was painted 300 years ago by a student of Rembrandt and is very famous. The artist died in an explosion the year he painted the Goldfinch. The painting and an explosion play a central role in Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winning novel The Goldfinch, which I took up on Christmas and finished just after New Year’s Day, 2015.

The Goldfinch is Tartt’s third novel, and like her others it is meticulously written. However, it was a long slow read that I’m happy to have finished. I started reading Goldfinch over a year ago, just after it was published in October of 2013, but I stopped reading after only 100 pages. I was in the middle of chapter 3, Park Avenue; the teenaged narrator had survived an explosion in the Met and the painting mentioned above was hidden under his bed. Interesting, but as I read on the plot became vague and the pace slowed — dread and tedium. But, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch opens in a shabby hotel room in Amsterdam. Only one person is in the room, he is a 28 year-old American wanted by the Dutch police in connection with a murder. Theo Decker, our narrator, is feverish with the flu and hallucinating as he flashes back 14 years to reflect on his mother:

THINGS WOULD HAVE TURNED out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.

Her death the dividing mark: Before and After. And though it’s a bleak thing to admit all these years later, still I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.
— Theo, The Goldfinch, page 7

This will be a great read,I thought. I liked the setup: thriller, mystery, who knows? Theo has suffered some sort of family tragedy when he was just a kid. Perhaps that set him off on a life of crime. Perhaps he is just feeling sorry for himself (the flu will do that) or maybe he feels responsible and will eventually make up for some evil he has committed. Lots of questions: How did his mother die? What did he do? Why is he an outcast or fugitive?

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt (detail), 1632, Mauritshuis museum, Netherlands

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt (detail), 1632, Mauritshuis museum, Netherlands

Theo continues his narration, telling of being with his mother in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to visit a traveling exhibit on loan from the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands. They look at his mother’s favorite painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a 1632 oil by Rembrandt. His mother stands in front of the painting, but Theo moves on to a less disturbing painting by Rembrandt’s best student Carel Fabritius. The Goldfinch, a small painting of a bird chained to its perch is interesting, Theo’s eyes wander towards a pretty young girl standing across the room.

Suddenly, Theo is distracted by a sudden movement near the exhibit shop:

The girl saw it, too. Her golden- brown eyes met mine: a startled, quizzical look. Suddenly another guard flew out of the museum shop. His arms were up and he was screaming. Heads went up. Someone behind me said, in an odd flat voice: oh! The next instant, a tremendous, earsplitting blast shook the room. The old man— with a blank look on his face— stumbled sideways. His outstretched arm— knotty fingers spread— is the last thing I remember seeing. At almost exactly the same moment there was a black flash, with debris sweeping and twisting around me, and a roar of hot wind slammed into me and threw me across the room. And that was the last thing I knew for a while.
— Goldfinch, Theo, p31.

As Theo rouses himself from the debris of the explosion, he finds himself lying next to an old man who was with the girl. The man says her name, Pippa, and gives Theo a package and as he dies of his injuries gets a pledge from Theo that he will guard the contents, a small painting of a goldfinch. This is powerful narrative; the explosion and Theo’s pledge to a dying man have set Theo on a mission to be shared with the reader in the 730 pages that follow in this long novel.

Theo escapes from the Met and begins to narrate his life story: where he lived in New York, where he went to school (private and expensive), problems at school (smoking, thievery). He relates details about his mother (beautiful, talented, plenty of money), and we are introduced to the doorman Goldie (a hispanic with gold fillings in this teeth). Clearly the plot is going to take a while to develop. I grew impatient, stopped reading The Goldfinch to pick up Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky , which is a V. I. Warshawski detective novel set in Chicago and Vienna. There is plenty of plot and action in this short, fast-pasted thriller.

Weeks later, I’m stubbornly reading The Goldfinch again, but stalled out in the middle of chapter 4, Morphine Lollipop. I abandoned the teen-aged narrator, Theo, in Las Vegas. He is in the clutches of his father, doing drugs with an unusual teenaged Ukrainian criminal named Boris (that may be a fake name). Tartt’s novel is good, and fun to read at times, but the plot is still beyond my grasp and the events being narrated in Las Vegas are disturbing. But, I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The Goldfinch, in spite of my reservations about the book, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. And, wonder of wonders, it won. The citation reads:

For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).
Awarded to “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown), a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.
Pulitzer Committee, April 2014

I’m not sure that The Goldfinch is a “coming of age” story, but who wants to quarrel with the Pulitzer Committee. I started collecting the reviews: Stephen King likes it, so did the Huffington Post reviewer. On the other hand, Paris Review, Ditching Dickensian, doesn’t, etc. I decide to go with Stephen King (he knows readers) — I bought the Kindle eBook and vowed to read The Goldfinch over Christmas. I would have to start from scratch as I had forgotten most of the details. Well, maybe on the third reading, if I controlled my impatience and got interested in the characters, I could finish Tartt’s prize winner.

Characters might be the place to start: There is Theo (a NY kid who got derailed by life), Pippa (the girl in the museum), Hobie (Pippa’s guardian and a master furniture restorer) and the Park Avenue Barbours (a very wealthy family, snobbish, shallow, but well-intended). Also, there is the Las Vegas connection: Theo’s evil father Larry (an alcoholic, gambler and thief who so upset me on my second reading), Larry’s girlfriend Xandra ( a Las Vegas woman, good heart, weak to temptations), and Boris (Ukrainian, teenager with connections). No wonder reviewers draw connections between The Goldfinch and Dickens’ novels, especially Great Expectations.

As Christmas approached, I had two copies of The Goldfinch, one digital the other traditional and heavy, and neither one was very well read. The hardback was truly a heavy book, almost 800 pages, pleasant to hold and it was a joy to thumb through the pages. It was near the top of my “books to read” pile, and during Christmas I noticed it there and picked it up. I glanced through the opening pages and then turned to where I had stopped reading several months before. I started reading again, and through force of will finished the Las Vegas years. I was really glad to leave that town and didn’t mind the sad end to the narrator’s father.

Building momentum, I connected with the plot about half-way through the book and that spurred me onward towards the dramatic ending. All in all, it was a pretty good read and seems to me that it is worthy of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. I came away thinking that the Kindle version was helpful to store notes and do searches for names and locations, but the hardbound book was more satisfying to hold and read. Given its weight I had to sit up straight with the book on my lap (no slouching or reading in bed with this 2 lb. Monster),.

The Goldfinch has been reviewed by all the usual suspects: I liked Stephen King’s review in the NY Times, and also Maddie Crum’s review in the Huffington Post, Why You Absolutely Should Read ‘The Goldfinch’. There is also a six-month comprehensive retrospective of The Goldfinch in the Guardian (in particular, they take issue with the negative Vanity Fair review, It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?).

And what do I think? Well, I liked it (despite the disturbing episode in Las Vegas), and I’m glad that I persevered. If you have a copy that you abandoned half-read, pick it up again and give it a try. If you skip the part in Las Vegas that’s OK with me, but let me tell you that Boris will return to become an important character later.

Don’t worry about the fabulous little painting by Fabritius. The painting is very well mounted and safe in the newly rebuilt Mauritshuis museum in the Netherlands. I was fortunate to have seen the painting when on exhibition in the DeYoung museum in San Francisco; it’s beautiful, but the European Goldfinch can’t compare in color to the bright yellow American Goldfinch! The Goldfinch was never on display at the Met; the exhibit was at the equally famous Frick Museum (poetic license on the part of Ms. Tartt, I suppose).

American Goldfinch,  Carol Hermesh,

American Goldfinch, Carol Hermesh,

Happy Reading in 2015


About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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8 Responses to Donna Tartt — The Goldfinch Unchained

  1. DebraB says:

    Like you, it took me quite a while to get through “The Goldfinch.” I put it down several times before I finally finished. I liked it, but not as much as her first novel, “The Secret History.” I also wrote about it on my blog if you’re interested.

  2. I haven’t started my copy out of fear that I wouldn’t like it… I think I’ll take your advice and give it a go but maybe skip parts of Las Vegas. Thanks. 🙂

  3. julial213 says:

    I felt bad that I had stopped reading it, but will take another stab at it. I think I must have been near the end of the Las Vegas section. Thanks for the encouragement, and for stopping by my blog. ~Julia

  4. graydaysandcoffee says:

    I read it over the summer. I’m sure it’s brilliantly written and all the other good stuff people said, but I really struggle to finish a book when I don’t really like the main character. I’m debating on whether or not to read another one of hers.

  5. litlove says:

    I got stuck in Las Vegas too! Drink and drug-fuelled rampages do very little for me. I am glad to see you think I could skip this section and pick it up again – another reader on my blog suggested I do the same thing and this may be the only way I will finish it. I’d like to finish it. I just wish there were more psychological depth to the telling and a bit more intriguing plot. Still, perhaps in 2016 I’ll manage to pick it up again!

  6. I made it through Las Vegas, only to bog down after the protagonist returned to New York, and skimmed to the end! Thanks for filling me in. And yes, the American Goldfinch is spectacular.

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