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A Reading of Donna Tartts 'The Goldfinch" Part One

Updated on August 7, 2014

The Goldfinch,

A few good reads.....

Arundhati Roys God of small things is an amazing book.  Id recommend it to anyone.
Arundhati Roys God of small things is an amazing book. Id recommend it to anyone.
The Accidental-a truly postmodern work of literature.
The Accidental-a truly postmodern work of literature.

A bit of Background

I was introduced to the literature of Donna Tartt around 6 years ago. The book I began this journey with, as with most Tartt fans, was her first Novel 'The Secret History', an immensely entertaining, smart, and mysterious book that I read in around 4/5 days. After reading it, I knew it would be a long time before I read anything as amazing as that story again, and I was right. Since then I've read everything from classic literature, to modern/postmodern texts to world literature, Ive read fantasy, something I never thought I would read. I've read educational texts on Gender in Film, books on poetry, books based on history and revolutions, I've stayed true to my heritage and read Irish Literature. I have enjoyed reading these, the diversity of genres and tropes, the difference in classic and modern literature, the new Literary techniques and devices that seem to personify the postmodern era. These were all great books, works of art and most important, had an impact on their genre. But somehow, even with all their glory, they just haven't had the same impact on me that the "The Secret History' did.

This may be due to the fact that I was mainly getting stuck into Holiday books, 'chick lit' stories when an aunt gave me a lend of 'The Secret History' so it could be classified as the first proper literary book that I read. I was growing up, leaving the now shallow stories of love (why are all holiday reads about a girl looking for or randomly finding love?!) behind for bigger and much, much better things.

Since that first glance through the looking glass I have been searching for a book as good a read as 'The Secret History', and I've come close a few times. Arundhati Roys 'The God Of Small Things' is an amazing book, a story about two twins, simple and complex simultaneously, intertwining Indian history with modern literary techniques, in one word, incredible. 'The Accidental' by Ali Smith, is again different but all the same brilliant. And then I found Tartts second novel, published 10 years after her 1st, 'The Little Friend". Everyone I met had said they couldn't finish it, it was nothing compared to her first, and they were right, it was nothing like 'The Secret History'. It's the story of a young girl trying to find the killer of her young brother years before. I got to the second chapter, put it down and wrote it off as a lame second attempt at a great book. How wrong I was. A year or two later, I came back to it having re read 'The Secret History' except this time, I couldn't put it down. It took me a long time to realize that Tartt's Novels aren't story driven like books I'm used to reading. Even having studied literature, every story needs an antagonist/protagonist dynamic, something that forces the story forward and Tartts Novels don't use this. They are completely story and experience driven. When I finally finished 'The Little Friend' I came to the realization that Tartt intended her books to be more about the experiences of her characters, she wanted us, the readers, to feel like we knew these characters, but I also noticed that sometimes these characters don't even know themselves very well, a very realistic aspect of her novels. Instead of trying to make a whole character at the beginning, she develops her characters as they go, and since her stories span a few years, they usually grow and find themselves by the end of the book. As with 'The Little Friend', many people hated the ending, it wasn't the typical 'happy ending' that people were expecting, instead of finding her little brothers killer, she doesn't. Tartt's ingenious way of forcing her readers to feel the pain, happiness, anxiety of her characters, makes her books much more about experiencing what she is writing rather than just reading it.

So, finally happy with both of her books, I greatly anticipated her next, as it was coming close to the next ten year mark, a new Donna Tartt Novel was bound to be published. And it was. 'The Goldfinch'.


Not quite how I pictured pre-museum Theo, but something along these lines.
Not quite how I pictured pre-museum Theo, but something along these lines.
Hobies Antiue Shop, a place of comfort to Theo
Hobies Antiue Shop, a place of comfort to Theo

The Setting

Everything about the setting of this book is perfect.

Starting in New York, an Art Museum, a place of silence and contemplation, soon turns into a place of chaos, death and fear, feelings, circumstances the paintings in the museum have been portraying for years. It also helps him feel closer to his mother, and although she is gone, being in the city that she loved helps him feel like he hasn't forgotten her. New york is also where the Barbours live, and without them and their neat and tidy living situation, Theo would never had anything to aspire to. Being from what is basically a broken home, he needs New York and everything it has to offer.

The Antique shop, where old worn out things are cleaned up and tuned into beautiful masterpieces. A place of warmth and comfort for Theo to recoup after his trauma, and also somewhere he can experience the ideal father. His father being an alcoholic, Hobie is the idyllic father figure.

Las Vegas, a place of gambling, bright lights and what would appear to be a hell a lot of criminal activity. It is here, that Theo starts to lose his old self, the one that constantly looked for his mothers approval. He meets Boris, and the two embark on a journey of drug use, alcohol, thievery and somewhat homosexual tension. While they are still generally good kids here, Las Vegas serves as the breaking point in this story. And a fitting place too, since most people view it with a sort of haze, lights flashing in fits, loud music, nobody really paying attention to anyone else. This is exactly how it feels for the boys too.

The shining lights of ....drug abuse?

The First Half

Being such a big reader, I'm always delighted with the size of Tartts Novel, she never strays from the gigantic books, and 'The Goldfinch' is no different, having some 700 pages. I can't say I'm ever happy to have a book end so the fact that Tartt's novels are huge is an added bonus in my eyes. As it is, i anticipated this book for a long time, and when I heard that it was going to be published for Christmas I was ecstatic.

I got the book as a Christmas Present, one I was so happy to see. I don't have the same reading time that I did when I was in college, so to and from work is really my only option, even though, its been about three weeks since Ive started and I'm exactly halfway through this story. Im always gutted when its get close to my stop, as I have to put the book away and wait until my next bus journey to continue, I've tried reading and walking and gotten a few mean looks of disgust when i bumped into people :)

I also read quite a few reviews before I started the book myself, and I can safely say, having read the first half, that I don't agree with a lot of them. The story is based around a young boy, Theo. His parents are basically divorced, his father ran off a year previously, so its just him and his mother. He visits a museum one day with his mother, she shows him the 'Goldfinch' a painting that is her favorite. As she goes to look for a trinket to buy he stays and watches a girl with her grandfather. An explosion erupts in the Museum and from that day on his life is changed forever. (no spoilers here, this is all in the synopsis). His Mother dies in the blast and the girls grandfather appears to be seriously hurt. In the post explosion daze, the grandfather talks to Theo and tells him to take the painting to a safe place. In his confusion, he does, not realizing that he's taking a priceless work of art. The grandfather also gives him a ring and tells him to take it somewhere. All of which Theo does, feeling uncertain about his future, he feels that the old man showed him a sign. Following the mans instructions he is introduced to a man who works in antiques. Here Theo feels fatherly love or what he should have felt with his own father, and he longs to be a part of Hobie's life, helping him fix antique clocks, and chairs, being treated like an apprentice. Hobie makes Theo feel safe.

Theo's a great character, immature but honest. He thinks through all of actions and figures the best course of action, but of course he is a minor, so he has no real say over who gets to take custody of him. He is a child at the beginning, one that loves his mother to pieces, and wants her only to be happy. He is friendly with all their neighbors and shows signs of being a really good kid. After the death of his mother though, thing seem to change course. He is no longer the sweet innocent child that looks to his mother for affection.

In Vegas, he makes a friend, Boris, who shows him how to smoke, drink, steal to feed themselves, and try all sorts of drugs. It appears, in this time of Theo's life, that he certainly going down a bad path. Although Boris can be seen as the catalyst for this, Boris' own home life is turbulent at best. We begin to realize that these are good kids, in bad situations.

The relationship between Boris and Theo is interesting. They have tenancies to fight with each other, constantly telling the other to 'Fuck off', but then they also have moments when they seem to be getting closer to a sexual relationship. Boris has no problem sleeping with his arm around Theo, while Theo at first appears alarmed, then enjoys this comfort. Some review have expressed frustration at this relationship not developing any further in the book. Tartt didn't make their relationship one based on homosexuality, however, these are just young boys, and figuring out who they are as they go along, so not catagorising them at this point is extremely important. I enjoyed reading about their drug fueled antics, mixed with moments of perfect closeness between the two. I liked the fact that what they had wasn't categorized, it was left open, just like the their relationship was.

Not everything is ended with a neat little bow, and Tartt uses this to convey the real-ness of Theo's experiences. Although there was a lot left unexplained or things that appear like they have no real connection to the story, they do. In real life, things happen all the time that have no real value to us, they are simply meetings with people, purchases, or conversations that have no effect on the overall outcome of our lives, and Tartt uses these meetings to enhance the experience of the readers. If she explained Theo's 60 hour bus journey in a sentence, we, as readers would not have felt that we too were on that bus with him, making our way across the country, worrying whether the driver will realize there's a dog hidden in the bag and kick us all off, stranded in nowhere. The same goes for the Barbours, as they had no real impact on the storyline whatsoever or what happened to Theo, but does that mean that these insignificant aspects of his life should not be explained, or given a few sentences?! If anything it brings the realism even closer to the reader. As I've said, its about the journey, not the plot.

He finds it hard to deal with life in Las Vegas. Its nothing compared to New York, and without his mother, he is simply lost. All the while though, he has the priceless Painting with him, not knowing what to do with it. He hides it behind his bed, only opening it up every so often to look at the bird, chained to his perch, something that rings true with Theo's own life. No matter where he goes, he is chained to the feelings of loss and guilt that he feels over his mother and everything that happened to him since. But also, he has little to no control over anything. He can't bare to be without the painting, as it is the last he owns that reminds him of his mother (his father either sold or gave away everything else she owned much to Theos' disappointment).

Post-museum Theo sure has changed.
Post-museum Theo sure has changed.

Of all three...

Which was your favourite Donna Tartt Book?

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My review:

Having only made my way through the first half of the book, I'm still trying to figure out where Theo is going to end up. I'm anxious and exited all at once, and want nothing more than to enjoy this absolutely brilliant book. Tartts complex writing and involvement of various languages, her descriptive passages describing everything Theo finds interesting, combine to make an extremely good read. Theo's own personal development is written to perfection, all of his statements and questions of anxiety are believable, making is character much more likeable. What's more, is his development is easy to follow. Once he moves to Vegas, he barely eats anything natural, eating instead a mix of leftover sausage rolls, and sweets mixed with daily doses of Vodka, cigarettes and a cocktail of Drugs. All of this impacts his behavior, and his appearance.

Everything about this boy screams 'help me', as he seems to be sailing further and further from the original Theo we were introduced to, the Theo that didn't want his mother finding out he got in trouble with school. The Theo that did what his mother asked even if he wanted something else. Soon enough, he is making his own decisions, choosing his own path, and what a path it is.

Tartt expertly describes a situation that has a long lasting effect on Theo. Death is always the hardest aspect of life to deal with, and as it has had an appearance in all of her novels, it makes an even more obtrusive one here. The death of Theo's mother will follow him forever, causing him to take steps he never thought he'd have to. I honestly can't wait to find out where all of this will leave poor Theo, and at the same time, I'm enjoying the story so much, I don't ever want it to end.

I'll let Tartt do the talking :)


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