‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
Disclaimer – a long post. But then, how can you expect anything less when the book itself is close to 800 pages?
‘An Object of Beauty’ by Steve Martin was one of the first books that I would have read about art. Then came Susan Vreeland’s ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue‘ that taught me the subtle nuances that made a classic,
“Look at the direction of the brush’s stroke, those tiny grooves of the brush hairs. They have their lighted and their shaded side. Look elsewhere. You’ll find overlapping layers of paint no thicker than silk thread that give a minute difference in shade. That’s what makes it a Vermeer.”
‘The Goldfinch’ reminded me of the second one in that a single painting is at the core of the story. Young Theo Decker is scared that he is going to be suspended from school, the headmaster has asked for a meeting with his mother. A shifty father, who has walked in and out of their lives, seem to have abandoned them for good finally. On that fateful morning his mother, who is ardent lover of art, decides to talk a look at one of her favorite paintings in the museum. Something in the painting catches Theo’s eyes as well, as small as the painting is. While dragging behind his mother , he notices a lovely girl with a violin, accompanied by a man who might be her grandfather. All hell breaks lose as there is an explosion, that almost shatters the whole place. Theo finds himself holding the hands of the old man, who utters some cryptic sounding words and thrusts an antique ring into his hand and urges him to get out. Something pulls the little boy back and makes him take the small painting off the hook as he walks out of the rubble. To repeat a cliche – life is never going to be the same for him again.
His mother killed in the explosion, a father who cannot be traced and a pair of indifferent grandparents, Theo finds himself in his friend Andy Barbour’s home – a typical high end New York house. The ring and an address that the old man had given him, leads him to the dusty but awe inspiring antique shop, to Hobie the genial owner and the girl in the museum, Pippa. He is drawn back to the place day after day, slowly starts helping out Hobie in restoring antique furniture and one gets a feeling he might find solace there. The feelings lasts until his father turns up at a most inopportune moment with his girl friend.
What follows is years of drugs, decadence, a new friend who seem to be a little more than crazy, coincidences, connections, more drugs and decadence, the high and low of New York and the underbelly of Amsterdam. The painting remains at the core of it all. I will leave the rest of the story for you to read, be surprised, turn sad and happy and finally to ponder over some thoughts in the end.
It is said that the author took more than ten years to complete this book and I am not surprised. The canvas is vast and filled with details. And therein lies the beauty. The language is exquisite, mostly. The little boy’s angst and insecurities and his dilemma over what could have been and should have been, and his longing for his mother is transferred to the reader subtly and surely. Sample this,
“I dreamed of her constantly, only as absence, not presence: a breeze blowing through a just-vacated house,her handwriting on a notepad, the smell of her perfume, streets in strange lost towns where I knew she’d been walking only a moment before but had just vanished, a shadow moving away against a sunstruck wall.”
Are you someone who has ever wondered what is it that attracts people to a masterpiece, make some to go to any lengths to own one and to hold on to it? You might understand the feeling,
“The painting made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”
I loved how the characters were portrayed, there is no one who is absolutely good or bad, the author doesn’t pass judgement on any of them and as a reader you are also gently persuaded to follow suit. There is a reason to what each of them says and does, there is an underlying resignation to life in each of them. The message, if that is so, of the whole story is captured in Theo’s words in the last chapter as he philosophizes about life as he has known it and in general. It does provoke some strong thoughts in your mind as well, at least, it did for me.
“Isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster ?”
The book also left me with a feeling that in the ten years that it took to bring it out, some editing could have been done. But then, it could also be that, the author did it on purpose. I skipped more than a few pages where it felt like long ramblings. Thinking back, maybe it makes sense, because the long-winding verses happen when at least one of the characters were in a delirious mood. The last chapter also seemed to go on and on, without any end in sight.
Verdict – Characters with depth, and excellent story line that does not let you keep it down despite the length, language that captures you in most parts and an endearing protagonist who asks some piercing questions – you love the sound of this? Go ahead, pick it up. If it is the paper version, you might develop some muscles also in the bargain.
‘The Goldfinch’ is an oil painting by the 17th century Dutch master Carel Fabritius. It is one of the few of his works that has survived en explosion that killed the artist.