What a treat to have a long (760-page) novel, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, to engage me while stuck on the beach (for a trace of a breeze) in between workshops in sizzling early summer heat! It’s taken me 3 years to open this book, but once picked up, I couldn’t put it down.
I was entranced by the characters and plot from the very beginning. Thirteen-year-old Theo is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his single mother (a true art lover/historian), because they need to get out of a rainstorm before a meeting at his school about his possible suspension. There’s a terrorist bombing, and Theo survives while his mother does not.
Upon awakening in the rubble, Theo is called over by Welty, grandfather to a beautiful young redhead that Theo had been following around the museum. Welty dies in his arms, after giving him an antique ring with an address to bring it to, and telling him to take the painting, The Goldfinch, (that they had all been viewing prior to the terrorist attack), out of the smoking wreckage of the museum.
Theo survives, but with guilt for being alive, and PTSD that he suppresses with numerous legal and illegal drugs to the point of near obliteration. Despite his often despicable acts, it’s hard not to root for Theo, even when it seems futile, his Root and Heart Chakras seemingly closed beyond repair. We hope he will find balance in a world with no safety net for him, and that he will find love with the redhead who has also survived. We hope and hope, with little reason to.
In the end, I found this book as inspirational as many of the “spiritual” books I regularly read for this blog. It seeks to answer the large question about why some people seem destined to suffer.
Theo has a dream visitation from his mother at his darkest moment, after murder and mayhem in Amsterdam, and that is the turning point in his life and his search for a reason to live. He wonders why:
“…as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”
This fits into my view of the meaning of life — to celebrate life, beauty, love —whatever obstacles are in our way. The Goldfinch painting symbolizes all of these things for Theo, even though, like the bird, he is tethered to a chain of sorrow from which he will never be able to free himself.
Theo, through the author, refers to the beauty of art in general, and The Goldfinch, a 1654 painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (said to be the “missing link” between Rembrandt and Vermeer), in particular:
“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time…. Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”
To me, the reader, these words refer to all things of beauty, including this beautifully written novel.
In a 2013 interview with The New York Times about the publication of this her third book, Tartt described her writing process, saying, “I was writing for a while not knowing what I was writing. That’s the way it’s been with all my books. Things will come to you and you’re not going to know exactly how they fit in. You have to trust in the way they all fit together, that your subconscious knows what you’re doing.”
As we all have to trust that our subconscious knows what we’re doing.
The Goldfinch is available on Amazon.com.