Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Like many people, I’ve read and re-read The Secret History since it came out in 1992. I find it to be an immensely moving and engaging novel, though I do feel that it’s a young writer’s book in many ways. The balance of power is too stark, the view of the world too limited. 

So I was pleased when I landed a copy of her latest book, The Goldfinch which I finished today. What an absolutely fascinating story. It really is a masterpiece. The main character, Theo Dekker, is scarred, neurotic, deeply troubled, but essentially good. When his mother is killed in a terrorist attack in the opening pages, his life is permanently altered and he bumps around the world: from the Upper East Side to Las Vegas, to Greenwich Village and Amsterdam, always trying to heal, to move on from what he has gone through. He is frustrating, heart-breaking, annoying, and complex.
People keep referring to the book as “Dickensian” which annoyed me at first but there are allusions to Dickens throughout and the book is very much a “David Copperfield” type of story. The highly stylized plot is certainly Dickensian. But the book lacks Dickens’ social conscience and what Tartt gives us instead is a philosophical conscience: less about the struggling lower classes and more about what it means to live and what it means to suffer.
This world is slightly claustrophobic at times and the last few days I’ve been having dreams of its stifling regiments: the New York art world, the upper class histories and provenances, the odd obsessions which come about because of too little day to day struggling (which suggests in a kind of way that struggle is universal). It’s a book about friendship, about art, beauty, death, love. But it’s also a treatise on living in the real world, living not to avoid pain and suffering but by embracing it, letting it be part of the whole experience of life.
“The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap,” Theo tells us:

beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about the wrong things and not at all about the right things? How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion and yet, for me anyway, all that`s worth living for lies in that charm?  We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. Because, isn’t it drilled into us from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture – from William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mr. 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 counsellor, every Disney princess knows the answers: be yourself, follow your heart…

If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm? Reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups? Stable relationships and steady career advancement? The New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise somehow of being a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

This is a book I will go back to again and again. Odd that: to encounter a book that you know will be a part of your life for years to come. So much more to say on the topic, so many things occurred to me as I read it. But I’m a bit overwhelmed by it now, it’s too close to me now and I have to say that I will miss the world Tartt has created until I have the impulse to revisit it.