Thoughts on Part I of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (by Jill)

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Donna Tartt’s long-awaited third novel came out late in 2013 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014. I read her two earlier novels, The Secret History, and The Little Friend, years ago, and remember really enjoying them, but at this point I couldn’t tell anyone what in particular I liked about them, besides a vague sense that Tartt’s writing is polished, and artful, and dense, and that the plots of her two previous novels had not one similarity that I can think of right now. One was about college kids, and one was about a missing child. And The Goldfinch is about a boy who becomes a man in the wake of his mother’s untimely death.

The Goldfinch came to me as October 2013’s Powell’s Books Indiespensible selection, several months before it won the Pulitzer Prize. I probably would have bought it in hardcover anyway, because I was very excited to have a new Donna Tartt book, and she isn’t a very prolific novelist—this is only her third since 1992. This was, I believe, the first book I had pre-ordered on Amazon that Indiespensible decided to send me. So I got to pay twice as much for it, but it came with some yummy salted caramel candy from a small candy shop in Seattle, a fancy slipcase for storage, and it’s signed by the author. Oh, and it’s a first edition, which is lovely, except that one of my cats really enjoys chewing on my books, and the more I want to keep them pristine, the more he wants to chew on them. And then I put a leaking coffee cup on the back cover a few mornings ago. So it’s not looking very pretty, but the pages are smooth and sort of shiny, so it’s been fun to turn the pages.

Bethany seemed to find Part I of the novel to be the strongest of the five parts that make up the whole, and she did a really good job of summarizing it, which is sort of too bad for me, because now I can’t pad my post with plot summary. At the opening, we meet Theo as an adult, holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, for reasons as of yet to be elucidated, though it’s implied that he may be wanted by the law. He reports having a dream about his mother, who died fourteen years ago. From this opening, he goes back to that day and moves forward in a very linear, thus far, fashion. He and his mom go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to check out a new exhibit of Dutch Masters to kill some time before they have a meeting at Theo’s school to discuss his recent suspension. We never do find out what Theo did to get suspended, because that meeting never happens. He goes back to school after his mom dies and no one ever mentions it again. The painting Theo’s mother especially wants to see is the titular The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius. Fabritius was a pupil of Rembrandt, and teacher of Vermeer. I’ve heard of the other two, but never of Fabritius. The painting is small. And it’s of a bird, chained to its feeder. Apparently people back in the seventeenth century kept finches as pets in this manner. I’ve never understood keeping birds as pets. The thing about this painting that makes it special is that it’s an early example of using shadows to create the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional piece of canvas. Have I mentioned yet that this painting is small? Wikipedia says it’s 13.2 x 9 inches, which explains why Theo is able to smuggle it out of the museum after the bomb goes off. He shoves it in a tote bag, and he leaves. Other things happen after the bomb goes off, of course, including talking with a dying man, and looking for his mother, and describing the strange silence that follows an explosion. During the two hundred pages I’ve read so far, Theo keeps meaning to do something with it, return it or something, but time passes, and then all of a sudden he is moving to Las Vegas and packing it in his suitcase with his socks and summer clothes.

Why does Theo leave Manhattan for Las Vegas? That’s because his father and his girlfriend Xandra turn up and take him there. Theo’s dad walked out on his family about a year prior to the tragedy. He was a drunk, and a mean one, and Theo and his mom don’t really seem too broken up by his departure. When Larry Decker returns, Theo is stunned, but resigned to his fate. He doesn’t trust his father, which seems like a good idea, because the first thing this “gentleman” does when he gets into town is not to find his son, but to try and get into the old apartment to “see what’s what (185).” Given Larry’s past, Theo assumes this means that he wants to figure out how much money can be made by selling off his estranged wife’s stuff. The good news is that Larry is no longer drinking, but the bad news is that he has moved onto pills, and he and Xandra give Theo something before he gets on the plane to Vegas. I know that once Theo moves to Vegas his life devolves in the way that I think most New York academics assume everyone in Las Vegas lives: drinking, gambling, drugs, and art theft. I’m not looking forward to watching this downward spiral unfold, and that may be the reason why I haven’t been excited to write this post today and go back to reading. I like Theo, despite the fact that he is likely more articulate in his thoughts than the average thirteen/fourteen year old (let’s just pretend that his adult self is infusing adult sensibilities into his child self as he tells the story—I’m hoping that’s what Tartt is up to, and she isn’t making mistakes). He seems like a good kid who means well.

Oh, one more thing to mention: the old man who Theo talks with in the museum is the person who shows him where The Goldfinch is and encourages him to take it and keep it safe. He also gives Theo his ring and amidst all the nonsense he’s saying he tells him the name of his shop: Hobart and Blackwell. Theo gets there eventually, and meets Hobie, Mr. Blackwell’s business partner. Hobie is a nice man who restores antique furniture that Mr. Blackwell (Welty) purchases and sells. Pippa is Welty’s niece who is also in the museum when the bomb goes off. Pippa lives with Welty—her mother died tragically six years earlier. Theo was drawn to Pippa prior to the explosion—he thought she was cute or something. Theo and Hobie develop a friendship of sorts; Hobie is the only adult Theo is actually willing to talk to about things, and after he visits with Hobie, he spends time with Pippa in her sick room. She didn’t get out of the museum as unscathed as Theo—she had some sort of surgery, her head is shaved, she has memory deficits, and she prefers to sit in the dark because light hurts her eyes. She is taken away from New York shortly before Theo, to go to Texas with an aunt. Since Welty is gone, Hobie is not a legal guardian or relative, so the closest living relation is contacted to take her to Texas. I’m only mentioning these characters now because I think they are going to be important later, but aren’t going to be around for a while. Pippa is probably going to be a love interest, and some sort of orphan point-counterpoint to Theo. Hobie may be Theo’s only positive adult role model as the story progresses, unless Larry and Xandra are planning to step in, which I kind of doubt.

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This entry was posted in Donna Tartt, Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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