“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only – if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another? …You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time – four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone – it’ll never strike anybody in the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but – a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.”
While reading The Goldfinch, I kept thinking about that old Psych 101 question: You’re in an art museum when a fire breaks out. In the room with you is an old woman, and a priceless Rembrandt. You can only save one. Which do you choose?
This is the best way I can think of to describe the characters in Donna Tartt’s books: they would all, without hesitation, choose to save the painting. This doesn’t mean that they’re evil, or even particularly bad. They just have different priorities, and a love of beautiful things that often blinds them and causes havoc in their lives. (I’m including the characters of The Secret History in that description, because the themes and characters in this book are so similar that it functions almost as an unofficial sequel – Tartt’s middle book, The Little Friend, is the strange, possibly-illegitimate cousin who no one really likes and will therefore not be invited to this party)
This book begins with what is essentially a real-life scenario of the question I posed above. One afternoon, thirteen-year-old Theo Decker is with his mother in an art museum, at a Dutch Masters exhibit. There is a bombing, which Theo barely survives, and when he is trying to get out of the ruined gallery he comes across an old man. The man, dying and disoriented, thinks that Theo is someone else and gives him his ring and says, “Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell.” Theo leaves the museum with two new possessions: the ring, and a small painting by Carel Fabritius called The Goldfinch.
Theo eventually tracks down the antique shop and becomes friends with Hobart (Hobie) a furniture restorer. But before we can get too invested in this, real life intrudes: Theo’s mother died in the bombing, and Theo’s only living relative is his deadbeat, gambling-addicted father, who shows up out of nowhere and brings Theo to live with him in Las Vegas. Theo spends several years living in a situation that is, frankly, Dickensian as fuck. It also drags on a lot longer than I thought it needed to, but the section establishes two important things: first, Theo is a lot more like his father than he likes to admit; and two, he makes a friend named Boris, a petty criminal who will become very important later.
Eventually Theo makes it back to New York, and throughout all of this, the painting goes with him. It becomes more than a painting: it becomes an object of comfort, a memory of his mother, and a vital part of his life.
“The painting had made me feel less moral, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up…all my adult life, I’d been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow apart.”
(I wasn’t joking about this being an almost-sequel to The Secret History – that last sentence could have easily been spoken by Richard Papen)
I’ll be honest: the best part of the plot (when someone begins to suspect that Theo was the person who stole the painting) takes way, way too long to get started, and the whole thing blows up so quickly that we almost don’t have time to catch our breath. But I didn’t mind, because lest we forget, this is Donna Tartt’s first book in ten years, so even when the plot dragged, I was still enjoying the feeling of being immersed in her world of corrupt heroes and savage beauty. Those who haven’t read The Secret History may find themselves a little adrift in this world where all the characters would choose to save a painting and let a person die instead. Those who found The Secret History melodramatic or contrived or ridiculous
can fuck right off will find nothing here that interests them. They can go sit somewhere else; I’ll be over here at Tartt’s table with the damaged, emotionally-unavailable borderline-sociopaths, talking about art. Over here, everything is beautiful and everything hurts, and that’s the way we like it.
“Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life – a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple – the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last – it’s all temporary. Death in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. Maybe you don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer – there it is.”
Verdict: four out of five stars