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Onyx reviews: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/25/2014
Dutch artist Carel Fabritius died in 1654 when a Delft gunpowder magazine exploded,
destroying his studio (as well as a quarter of the city), along with most of his
paintings. He was a pupil of Rembrandt and much appreciated in his day. However,
his name is mostly lost to history because so few of his works survive. One of
them, a smallish painting called "The Goldfinch," hanging in New York's
Museum of Modern Art, nearly suffers the same fate when a terrorist bomb
explodes, killing a number of patrons.
the museum that day is 13-year-old Theo Decker. He and his mother are passing time until a meeting at the school where Theo may be suspended. Because of the
reason they were there, Theo blames himself for his mother's death in the
explosion. If he hadn't been ill-behaved, they wouldn't have been there, ergo,
his mother would still be alive.
Something else interesting happened to Theo
that day. He was smitten by a red-headed girl of about his age, and had been
trailing her around the museum, watching the way she interacted with her
grandfather. He was supposed to meet his mother in the gift shop, but his
fascination with Pippa saved his life. He attends to the grandfather's final
moments, and is bestowed with a gift—the man's ring—vague
instructions about what to do with it, and orders to save "The
Goldfinch." Theo spirits the painting out of the museum.
and its origins are incidental to the tale. It is simply is a catalytic event,
one that sends Theo's life in a new trajectory. His father abandoned the family
nearly a year earlier, so he is now effectively orphaned. His friend Andy's
family takes him in for a while (there's always a threat that his hateful
grandparents might take him away, but that never comes to pass), but just when
it's starting to look like the arrangement with the somewhat dysfunctional
Barbours might become permanent, his father reappears, girlfriend in tow, ready
to clear out the apartment, sell off his mother's belongings, and take him with
them back to Las Vegas.
Theo still has "The Goldfinch," and his
biggest worry is that he will either lose this priceless painting or that his
father will discover it and dispose of it. Time and time again he has thought
about ways to return it, especially after it shows up on a watch list of missing
artwork, but he can never quite follow through. He does return the heirloom ring
to the dead grandfather's business partner, Hobie, an antique furniture
restorer, and eventually meets up with Pippa again, but their intense
relationship, born out of catastrophe, can never quite fulfill its promise.
rest of Theo's early years is a tale straight out of Dickens, told at Dickensian
length and in Dickensian detail. He's David Copperfield crossed with Oliver
Twist, and the Ukranian named Boris who becomes his partner in crime during his
time in Las Vegas is his Artful Dodger, a colorful and amusing (and sometimes
frustrating) character who pops into and out of Theo's life in the ensuing
years. Adults are often absent or neglectful, especially Boris's father, who is
rarely seen and greatly to be feared during his few appearances. Theo's father
is a veteran gambler who flies high when he's winning, but in Vegas the house
always wins. Xandra, his father's girlfriend, the woman for whom he left Theo's
mother, tries to be maternal, but it isn't in her.
Much of Theo's
adolescence is colored by excessive booze and a variety of drugs, a habit that
carries with him into adulthood. The story follows nearly a decade of his life,
leading from one caper to the next, from one disaster to the next, from one
escape to the next, inevitably returning to the Amsterdam hotel room where Theo,
now a young adult, is introduced in the book's opening pages. By this point,
it's clear that something has gone terribly wrong, but it takes Tartt a long
time—and many of the book's nearly 800 pages—to get there.
the heft of the book is not a problem. The narrative moves relentlessly forward
(though not always chronologically), and Theo is a charming and beguiling first
person narrator. He's a rascal, sometimes drug-addled, who makes many bad
choices in his life, but he almost always seems to get away mostly unscathed.
Since the book is his adult retelling of events, his young boy perceptions are
imbued with everything he has learned (especially about art) over the years,
which can make him seem somewhat precocious. Along the way, several people are
kind to him, including Hobie, who essentially adopts him when he returns to New
York from Las Vegas. Theo manages to save the financially rickety antique shop,
but his methods are another in a long line of ill-advised decisions. Just as the
house always wins in Vegas, the world usually wins out as well, and the lies and
cons and betrayals begin to catch up with him, building up a head of steam that
he can barely outrun.
Lurking in the background, there's always
"The Goldfinch." Theo knows enough about art preservation to keep the
painting from being exposed to unfavorable conditions, so he rarely actually
sees it, but it seems to take on a life of its own. Rumors abound as to its
location, and his worst fears are borne out when a crook puts two and two
together and begins to put the strong arm on Theo and his checkered past.
there are long passages where little happens, somewhat bogged down by the
intricate details of art restoration, once all hell breaks loose in Amsterdam,
things happen so fast that the narrative becomes confused and confusing. Theo is
no longer in charge of his destiny, but was he ever? As the major plot points
are resolved, he looks back on his short life to this point and muses
philosophically about the turning points when things might have been different.
Granted, not all of these pivotal moments were the result of his own actions—he
had no hand in the bombing, for example—it leads him to wonder about the
nature of the universe. The goldfinch in the painting is as large as life, more
realistic than most depictions from its era, but it is chained to its perch, a
prisoner of fate. Is it proud and defiant in its captivity? Or is it merely
making do in its limited existence as best as it can?
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