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"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt, Pulitzer Prize winner 2014
Art and specifically paintings we look at speak differently to each one of us. What is unique about looking at a painting is that each one of us sees something different.
Some part of the painting pops out at us more than for anyone else. And, part of the beauty of seeing a painting is that it is forever with us. Some part of that beautiful painting reaches our heart and soul and we remember it forever.
The beauty of art lifts us up and away from our dreary reality for that moment and for each time we remember it.
Such is one of the themes of the recently published novel, The Goldfinch, by American writer Donna Tartt. It could be said that the main character of her novel is this painting, The Goldfinch by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, (1654) even though it remains hidden for most of the novel.
Tartt's third novel, a huge 775 page tome, published in October 2013, has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2014. And it is an absorbing novel with lots of action and with unusual plot twists that kept me turning the page.
Tartt's story is centered around the the painting, The Goldfinch, and the twists and turns it takes, along with the protagonist, on an haunted odyssey through present day America. It is a story about huge loss, obsession, survival, and self-invention and the enormous promise of art
Have you read this novel?
The novel begins at the end of the story, with the protagonist, Theo Decker, alone, sick, drug-addled, and drunk, in a hotel room in Amsterdam, Holland at Christmas time. He regrets having taken off so fast from New York without bringing warmer clothes as he freezes in bed with all his clothes on and the covers up to his chin.
We don't know why he is there, only that he is frequently vomiting, fevered, and beside himself for the situation he is in. He admits it is all his fault as he falls in and out of sleep and experiencing haunting dreams. Suddenly, he experiences a sweet dream, it is of his mother, now deceased for the past fourteen years, and she is as loving and sweet as he has always remembered her. He even remembers the splay of freckles across her nose.
When he wakes up, he is invigorated by his dream of her, and so he begins to write his story saying, "Things would have turned out better had she lived. . . when I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life."
Theo begins telling his story on the day he, a thirteen year old eighth grader, and his mother are expected at an appointment with the headmaster at his school. Theo has been recently suspended for smoking, although he was not actually smoking but standing with another boy who was.
As they leave their apartment in NYC, Theo and his mother are headed for a restaurant for breakfast first, but get waylaid on their way when they pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo's mother, an art enthusiast herself, wants to show Theo some paintings.
While in the museum, Theo notices a beautiful red-haired girl and an older man and he stays behind as his mother moves on to another gallery, to see if he can meet the girl. Suddenly there is a flash of light and an explosion and the next thing he knows Theo's ears are ringing and he finds himself on the floor with museum debris on top of him.
He gets his bearings and realizes he is not badly hurt and tries to help the bleeding, older man he saw earlier now lying near him. The older man, who knows he is dying, gives his signet ring to Theo and points to a painting on the wall and tells Theo to take it and the ring to a friend of his in the city.
Theo, dazed and confused, does what the man asks him to do and is able to escape from the mass of steel and debris without more than a few bruises on the head.
Of course, the painting Theo has taken at the request of the man is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Now begins the strange odyssey of Theo and the painting. Theo means to contact authorities and return the painting, but as his life spins out of his control, this never happens.
Theo finds out his mother has been killed in the explosion and his father who had deserted them years ago, is not in the picture. He is taken by Child Protection Services and sent to live with the family of a classmate of his, the Barbours. Through all this he is terrified of telling anyone he has the painting for fear he will be sent to the detention home for juveniles or worse, prison. So he keeps the painting hidden.
The Barbours are a typical Park Avenue family, wealthy, superficial, and dysfunctional. Although, Theo and Andy Barbour are classmates and friends, Theo is made to feel like an outsider. He is not used to living in such wealth, and feels he is patronized by Mrs. Barbour, the typical socialite mother.
During all this, Theo deals with survivor guilt. If he had not been in trouble at school, he and his mother would not have been going to meet the headmaster, would have never been in the museum, and she would be alive today.
He also finds the friend of the older man who had given him the ring and he takes the ring to him. He is Mr. James Hobert, known as Hobie, who runs a furniture repair and upholstering shop. But, not just any furniture, mostly high priced antiques that he repairs and then sells.
Theo is also surprised to find that Pippa, the red-haired girl at the museum, lives with Hobie and Theo is thrilled to have found her. She, too, had been in the explosion at the museum, and the older man had been her grandfather. She has lived, but her leg was smashed from falling debris, so she is bedridden for the moment. At seeing Pippa, Theo is love-struck.
Of course, Theo finds every reason to visit Hobie and Pippa and is heartbroken to learn Pippa is going to Texas to live with an aunt. But, Theo and Hobie have become friends and so Theo continues to visit him from time to time
Theo lives with the Barbours a year, in the meantime, hiding the masterpiece painting among his things. Just as Theo thinks he might be making progress at becoming a true part of the family as Mrs. Barbour invites Theo to summer vacation with them in Maine, who should come knocking at the Barbour's door? Theo's missing father and his girlfriend Xandra.
Theo, who has never liked his father because he deserted him and his mother, is whisked away (painting in tow) by his father to Las Vegas, Nevada, where his father and Xandra live. His father is a full time gambler who seems to be making it big. He drives a Lexus and has a huge house with pool in the suburbs of Las Vegas.
But, Theo's father is not the nurturing, loving type and Xandra is not the nurturing mother type either. His father gambles all day and night and Xandra works as a hostess at one of the casino restaurants.
Theo is left on his own, but is enrolled in public school where he meets a guy his own age, Boris, and they become best friends. They are both on the same intellectual level and both love reading and discussing good literature.
Boris, who's father is a Russian and an alcoholic, and Theo, whose father is not far behind, raise themselves over the several years Theo lives in Las Vegas. Still in possession of the painting, Theo hides the painting by taping it on the back of the headboard of his bed.
As typical teenagers, Boris and Theo hang out together at each other's homes, but because they are not watched over by anyone, they slip into drunkenness and drug use. They confide in each other and discover they pretty much have had the same story. Their mothers died when they were young and they are left with inferior drunken fathers to take care of them.
From time to time, when Theo is alone at the house, he takes out the painting to look at it and the painting becomes the anchor in his life. It is the one beautiful thing that Theo has in his life, but he is racked with guilt because he knows he should have returned the painting long ago and is frightened the police will someday hunt him down for the painting.
In a strange twist of fate, Theo's father is killed in a car collision, and because Theo is afraid the Child Protection Services will put him in a foster home there in Las Vegas, he leaves that night to return to NYC.
Boris, pleads with him to wait until the next day or two to leave, but Theo insists he must leave that night and so he does. Of course, Theo has the painting, which is heavily wrapped up with him in his luggage.
Theo buys a bus ticket and returns by bus to NYC. As he is on his way to the Barbour's apartment, he is walking through Central Park, and surprisingly bumps into Mr. Barbour, a bipolar who is off his medication, and wild-eyed he tells Theo is is not welcome at their home and he isn't giving any more handouts to him.
Theo is crushed to hear this but decides to seek out the only other friend he has in the city, Hobie. Hobie is happy to see him and immediately takes Theo in. Arrangements are made with Child Protective Services and Hobie becomes Theo's guardian. Theo lives with Hobie and learns the antique trade. He is happy to see Pippa when she returns to Hobie's for visits but is sad to learn she is in boarding school in Europe.
Theo continues his studies at an early college high school in the city, but he really loves learning the antique business from Hobie.
Fast forward to after college graduation, which Theo only passes with mediocre grades, and Theo is now in partnership with Hobie in the antique business. Theo runs the selling end of the business, and Hobie remains in the repair end of the business.
Theo, to get the business out of the red, sells some of the antiques as rare originals to obtain high prices for the furniture, unbeknownst to Hobie, and runs into problems when one customer realizes the fraud Theo is committing. This customer also suspects Theo has the rare, masterpiece painting of The Goldfinch.
Here is where the novel takes a huge turn and Theo finds himself dealing in the underworld of great and missing art. And, who should show up in NYC and at the antiques store? Of course, Boris.
Boris and Theo rekindle their friendship and both become involved in the intrigue of the art underworld. Hence, the reason Theo is in Amsterdam.
I won't tell you how this enthralling novel ends, but it is surprising and has a significant twist to it.
Analysis of the novel
Many have seen the similarities between this novel and those of Charles Dickens, and one of Tartt's favorite literary writers is Dickens. I would have to agree. The novel most resembles Dickens' Great Expectations and Oliver Twist as Theo is an orphan and dealing with a cruel world. He ends up living with a kindly gentleman, Hobie, and of course, has fallen in love with Pippa, but she is out of his reach as she moves to Texas, goes to school in Switzerland, then ends up living in London, and also has an English boyfriend.
The major themes of this novel are of social class as Theo struggles to be part of the wealthy Barbour family, but never feels he quite makes it. Theo must deal with the overriding guilt and grief he has struggling with the death of his mother and then keeping the painting hidden in secret. As time goes on, Theo realizes he should have returned the painting immediately and not having done so has made his situation worse. He constantly lives in fear of the police hunting him down for the painting.
Also, the aesthetic beauty of the painting for Theo comes out from time to time he looks at the painting in solitude. He admires the large brush strokes used to paint the bird. And he begins to identify with the bird because the bird is chained to his post. This symbolizes Theo being chained to the painting and held captive by all this, especially when he has to deal with Child Protection Services.
And, now that he has the painting in his possession, Theo begins to believe he is stalwart in preserving it and making sure the painting is not damaged nor destroyed. It is up to him to preserve the beauty of the painting.
The most important theme of the novel is the question: is it chance encounters or fate that determines our lot in life? Theo experiences many chance encounters in his life starting with the chance or random death of his mother in the museum explosion. It was random chance that instead of getting breakfast, Theo and his mother ended up at the museum on that fateful day. Then, there is the chance encounter of the elderly man with the signet ring who urges Theo to take the painting in the first place.
The worst chance encounter, in Theo's opinion, is the knock on the door that brings his deadbeat father and his girlfriend into his life. Theo has to leave the Barbours, and go with his father to Las Vegas to live, so Theo has no choice in the matter.
But, are all chance encounters bad ones? In Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, who becomes his best friend and the person with the most impact on Theo's life. Because the two have been left alone by their neglectful fathers, they form a bond that is carried out through the end of the novel. Even though they don't see each other for years after Theo leaves Las Vegas, Boris shows up in NYC when they are both now adults and Theo is in the antique business. It is another chance encounter on the streets of NYC, but they rekindle their friendship and pickup where they left off in Las Vegas.
Theo had always liked and loved Boris (not in the physical sense) because Boris was never afraid. Theo saw that Boris "moved freely through the world and with a vigorous contempt for it, but at the same time he had such an oddball and unthwartable faith in it." Boris sees life "from all different angles and in ways that are unique and particular" and so different from Theo.
On that fateful night in Amsterdam, Boris shows up at Theo's room and Theo, angry with Boris because of the situation he is in, is ready to leave to return to the U.S. The two enter into one more discussion and Boris asks Theo, "What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, made no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set?" Theo has never entertained these thoughts about life this way before this.
Boris continues, "What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us around to good? What if for some of us, we can't get there any other way?" Theo pauses to think about this and sees the situation through Boris' eyes for the first time.
Boris explains to Theo how much he learned from Theo's father when they lived in Las Vegas. Theo, who disliked his father so much, can't understand how Boris could like and learn from his deadbeat father.
Boris asks, "Isn't everything worthwhile a gamble? Can't good come around sometimes through some strange back door? Sometimes you have to lose to win," he concludes.
Is it chance or fate that determines our lives and the roads we take? Tartt leaves the answer up to each individual reader.
Inverview with Donna Tartt
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© 2014 Suzette Walker