BY NICO LANG AND LEAH PICKETT
Hello, loyal readers of the Internet hinterlands. Thanks for joining us for what may be a very emotional week of LitChat, a weekly discussion of all that’s trending in literature. My name is Nico Lang, and I’m the Opinion Editor at The Daily Dot. I also come to you a different person after finishing this week’s book. I think my heart may have grown three sizes.
And I’m Leah Pickett, writer for the Chicago Tribune and incorrigible bookworm. I’m also giving Nico a big virtual hug through my laptop screen right now.
Our selection this week is The Goldfinch, the third novel from American author Donna Tartt that recently wonthe Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This is Tartt’s first new book in 11 years, and it is stunningly good—so good, in fact, that it was goddamn painful to read at times. Not many authors can physically hurt you with their brilliance, but Tartt is certainly of that echelon.
The Goldfinch is long, clocking in at just over 780 pages. In that sense, Theo’s story does feel epic, even though we only visit a handful of locales (New York, Los Vegas, Amsterdam) and most of his interactions are with a revolving door of familiar faces.
Stephen King’s review of The Goldfinch describes the novel as Dickensian: Theo is a modern day Oliver Twist, Dad is Fagin, Boris is the Artful Dodger, and Theo’s quasi-guardian Hobie could be any number of eccentric characters, restoring beautiful old furniture in his charming antique shop.
I can see this on the page, but what really hit me on an emotional level was Tartt’s piercing scrutiny of thehuman condition, and how so much of the novel centered around seemingly random twists of fate and circumstance. What if Tom Cable had not been the cause of Theo’s suspension on that fateful rainy day that Theo and his mother decided to step inside the museum? What if Tom Cable hadn’t shown up again to have an affair with Kitsey, freeing Theo from a marriage that would have made him even more unhappy. How ironic was it for Theo to throw himself into the same cycle of drug addition, lying, cheating and shirking responsibility that he had so deeply resented in his father before him? What goes around comes around, I suppose.
What do you think?
I loved the way Tartt was overt about her influences. You brought up Dickens, whom Tartt cites often, but there’s a considerable amount of J.K. Rowling in Donna Tartt’s prose, as if she were writing Harry Potter for adults. For a story that’s stunningly brutal and bleak, one of the most excruciatingly painful books I’ve ever read, there’s an incredible amount of magic in this book. Since The Secret History, Tartt has long been fascinated by our relationship to beauty, the ways in which a single moment of connection with art can define our whole lives, and never before has that theme been so overt.
Harry Potter had his wand, but the power of The Goldfinch is stranger and more elusive. In 700 pages, Tartt does something more than add to the canon of epic novels—sitting along Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, obvious influences — she tells the entire story of a life in a single book. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and you can feel the years that Tartt spent pouring over this novel, getting every single detail right. Tartt says that every great work is a self-portrait, and the author shines through in every word; I felt like I was getting to know her in a bizarre and intimate way.
Yet I also deeply connected with this book on a hauntingly personal level, as if she were also telling my story. Tartt tells a story of lives shaped by death, and during the course of reading this book (a lifetime in itself), my best friend died. That fact made The Goldfinch one of the worst reading experiences of my life at points, and I nearly begged Leah to let me quit this book, but few reading experiences have been as transformative.
Reading this book made me feel more connected to the world and everyone who would read it, the point in which our own lives all converge on this one great work. I felt less alone in my suffering and deeply grateful for this gift of a book.
As soon as you told me what happened, my heart ached just thinking about you reading this to the end. Needless to say, I couldn’t be more proud of you, as I would have been totally okay with you throwing it out altogether.
That being said, it’s interesting that Tartt’s narrative follows 10 years of Theo’s adventures, because it took her about 10 years to write the book. And while the plot is an alternate history—the terrorist bombing at theMetropolitan Museum of Art obviously never happened, and The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius was never stolen—the characters and the story do feel so real, and yet so magical too.
The Goldfinch is what sustains Theo, but I love that giving it up is also what saves him. The painting is a metaphor for not just his inner light and strength as a survivor of tragedy, but as a real, tangible connection to his mother and what he knows of love. The symbolism here is so profound; I’m getting teary just thinking about it.
I was taken aback by so many things: the little moments of foreshadowing (Theo’s mother pointing to a speck of rot on a still life, minutes before her death, and saying, “The painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last—it’s all temporary”) and the hint of sexual fumblings between Theo and Boris, which I’m sure is a more common occurrence between two adolescent boys than most would care to admit.
I don’t know about you, but I highlighted practically the entire book. Another of my favorite lines comes towardsthe end, when Theo is writing down his experiences in memoir. His takeaway? “That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That 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.”
Do you have similar feelings to Theo in this? I’d never thought about Death and Fate this way before, at least not consciously, but now my view is changed.
I think there’s something a little soapbox-y about the last chapter of the novel, when Theo’s narration becomes a direct address to an invisible reader, and it almost becomes a different book. I love the ways in which The Goldfinch goes in so many different directions, often with slightly diverging styles (sometimes a gritty crime thriller, other times a class comedy) but ties it all together in these heartbreakingly honest passages, thelessons of a decade under the influence.
I wasn’t sure how much I agreed with Theo. I found his perspective a little fatalistic for my tastes, but I was enriched by the ways in which Tartt doesn’t cheat the reader here. I prayed for a conventionally happy ending for Theo, which I almost got during Boris’ Christmas miracle, but Tartt does something better. She gives us an ending that’s both happy and powerfully sad at the same time, one that feels truly earned. I’ve rarely wanted things to turn out well for a character so badly, but in a way, that was never in store for Theo. As Xandra says, he is his father’s son, almost an exact replica, maybe with a slightly different wood finish.
He’d been running away from his father, from punishment and from the day of his tragedy for so long that he couldn’t see that embracing all of that darkness was his very destiny. For me, the most important moment inthe novel is Theo reflecting on that journey to the space in between light and dark. “What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?” What a beautifully redemptive sentiment. My favorite thing about The Goldfinch is this—how Tartt shows that all of our sins are forgivable. In fact, they make us the person we are meant to become.
Well, I also was drawn to the idea of Theo as a replica of his father, and his questioning of his own heart. “If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?” I felt that Boris was more of a fatalist than Theo, but—ironically—seemed happier as well. Is that the secret to a “happy” life, embracingthe darkness with the light, giving in the inevitability of Death and Fate?
I think Tartt gave Theo a happy ending, although perhaps not in the traditional sense. He didn’t “get the girl” or reunite with his mother outside of a few haunted dreams, but he did get his integrity back. And I firmly believe that a person without integrity can never be whole. In my view, Theo is at least on his way to becoming thewhole person that was split into a million pieces on that fateful day at the museum. The novel ends with him putting the pieces back together, and there is a beautiful sense of hope in that.
Tartt makes that so literal, as Theo is actually scrambling across the country to get all the pieces back. Putting yourself back together is hard work, and Tartt doesn’t let him off easy. I felt like this novel could have gone in a million different ways, and I felt like The Goldfinch ended up the best version of itself. As a reader, I can only hope the same for Theo.
As we send Theo off into the future, we, thus, end this week’s discussion of The Goldfinch, which if you wantthe TL;DR version, you should go buy immediately. Next week, we’ll be reading James Franco’s Palo Alto, which promises to have 100% less deaths and 100% more botched Instagram pickups.
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Is it weird that I am excited to read this? Because I am excited to read this.
Oh God, I don’t even know what to expect for this. I’m weirdly scared?
YOU SHOULD BE.
‘Til next time, au revoir!
Bis spater, Interwebs.