Sometimes, a work of art comes along that is not only brilliant in the universality of its appeal, but that is also just right for you, as an individual, in that specific moment of time. Its themes and particular beauty speak to you on a personal level, and thus remembered forever for that.
This is of course the premise of Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, an epic 800-page monster which follows a single, tiny painting and one boy’s attempts to hang on to it, but it is also true of the novel itself.
It is hard to describe how much I loved this novel – it’s like watching a painting in motion, you unmoving in your spot as the light changes over the course of day and night and different weather pattern, and reveals new and unexpected angles. You walk the streets of New York and Las Vegas and see how the sky changes, to eventually end up in Amsterdam (a city that to me is home, as well as a bit of an adventure) and let the clouds bear down on you, knowing the sun is about to take a peek on the canals.
The story follows Theodore Decker, who at 13 is involved in a tragic bombing at a New York City art gallery which kills his mother. In his shock, he encounters a dying man who instructs him to rescue a painting from the ruins of the gallery, and Theo takes it home with him, not knowing what else to do.
The painting is the Goldfinch, painted by Dutch master painter Carel Fabritius in 1654. The ghost of Fabritius lingers over the course of the story – he himself came to an end in the explosion of the gunpowder house in Delft, which also set fire to his studio, destroying most of his work. He was only 32 years old at the time. We are left to wonder why he painted the tiny little gold finch on its perch, a peculiar little piece for the time; most Dutch paintings from the 17th century are commissioned portraits, landscapes or still-lifes, in which the animals are mostly dead.
The little bird sits on its perch, watching the viewer with surprisingly lively eyes, and you can’t help but feel sorry for its chain, keeping it from flying less than a feet away from its perch before the little bird is yanked back in its place like the household toy it is.
Theo is similarly trapped into the events of his life. After the death of his mother he spirals down into a madhouse of overcoming his grief and finding a new place for himself. The first part is spent with the kindly but also rather cold Barbours family, wealthy friends of Theo’s who take him in for the first few weeks, after which his father, a bit of a shady figure who ran away from the family, unexpectedly shows up to take Theo home.
Home, as it turns out, is a condo in the outer suburbs of Las Vegas, newly built in the middle of nowhere, amidst desert sand, blistering heat and the dubious practices of the dad and his new girlfriend Xandra (‘Not Sandra with an S, and definitely not Sandy’)
Here he meets my favourite character, Boris, dragged over to the US from the ex-Soviet Union by his alcoholic father, and they take on their existential crises with good-humoured experimenting with drugs and Russian Literature. Boris, on the loss of their parents;
“Mistake was made! Everything is unfair! Who do we complain to, in this shitty place?”
Out of this relationship the real climax of the novel eventually comes about in the streets of Amsterdam, by which time Theo is an experienced dealer in antiques and Boris a minor crime lord, and Theo’s concealment of the painting all those years turns out to have some unexpected consequences.
Perhaps surprisingly, they end up doing the right thing.
This was one of my favourite novels, and most certainly of any novel recently released. It was just right on so many levels for me. Would recommend.