The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a captivating 800 page chronicle of the life of Theodore Decker. It begins when a young boy is rocked by suicide bomb in Metropolitan Museum of Art that takes his mother’s life and replaces her with a yearning for the fleeting moments before everything changed, and the most unusual of objects: a stolen masterpiece from 1654. The attraction of the miniscule work of art depicting a goldfinch chained to a bronze perch and its enduring irony are juxtaposed against the equally perturbing and seemingly escapable events that Theo must face time and time again. Beginning with a sojourn in the lap of luxury, before being shocked into a glaringly superficial existence with his unstable father, moving into an adulthood made interesting only by affairs and fraud, the novel eventually takes the protagonist through a bloody episode in Europe complete with murder, near death experiences and a lot of prize money!
Tartt leads us through the most unlikely of circumstances with flawless realism. When Theo first arrives at Hobbie’s antique shop as a lonely young boy looking for answers to questions he cannot ask, any reader who has ever visited the lower West side of Manhattan will feel as though they have been transported back to a precise feeling they thought to be individual and irreplicable, and to meet the hulking restorer of antiques, Hobbie, themselves. The descriptions of the demeanours of Mrs. Barbour and her entourage are equally uncanny of the alternative universe that is old wealth in New York, as are the relationships built between the main character and people, such as the doorman, and places, such as one particular bench in Central Park.
The trust established early on in the novel allowed me to forfeit all my disbelief over to Tartt as she has Theo recount his drug-addled delinquent years with the person on the planet as disturbed as himself, Boris. Again, interludes by this character are so rash and raw, frustrating and unforgettable, that it is as difficult to put down the novel when he is speaking as it is to escape circular conversation with anyone who is manic about the topic at hand and intoxicated by one substance or another. The multilingual Ukrainian with an impulsive air and profoundly contradictory existence becomes the carrot that lures Theo (sometimes unwillingly, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes eagerly) through all the wrong decisions and all the wrong times. Only as a young adult temporarily separated from the influence of his most depraved vices, can Theo construct the façade of a normal life – although even this is perpetually propped-up by pharmaceuticals. As life drags on, it becomes clear that Theo must face traumas and dramas and moments of complete desperation in order to arrive at the ultimate understanding that will finally set him free from that one fateful moment in the Met.
A empathy inspiring, nail-biting tale of isolation, addiction in all its forms, and the compulsive pull of obsession is intertwined with reflections on human perseverance and the importance of fate. Although possibly the least plausible component of the novel, the recurring coincidences – ranging from the parallel lifecycle of Fabritius’ Goldfinch (thought lost in a fiery blaze) to the complimentary viewpoints of Theo’s father, Boris and Hobbie – are a refreshing out offered to the reader as they struggle to find sanctuary from what is overall, a fairly gloomy story. The beauty of it is that the tormenting cruelty exerted on Theo by the fates, friends and himself is not without cause, rather, it leads us to an uncomfortable reflection on contemporary life: “Maybe it’s not so simple…good doesn’t always follow from good deeds, nor bad deeds result from bad, does it? Even the wise and good cannot see the end of all actions.”
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