In his hatchet job on The Goldfinch, Peter Kemp puts Donna Tartt’s success down to a “winning formula”: all three of her books open with a murder. According to Kemp, Tartt’s latest begins with a murder in Manhattan, but what he misses is the real homicidal opener – death in Amsterdam. While Manhattan may be the story’s catalyst, Amsterdam is certainly the book’s climax. It is easy to forget this as these opening pages are the only moment at which the story deviates from an otherwise linear structure; the act of violence is also secondary to protagonist Theo Decker’s inward reflections, buried in the headline “Onopgeloste moord. Onbekende”.
The Goldfinch is named for Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting, which is permanently housed in the Royal Picture Gallery of The Hague, but which temporarily formed part of The Frick Collection in New York to coincide with the release of the book. It is written fourteen years after Theo’s mother, Audrey Decker (who is “as glossy and nervy and stylish as a racehorse”), is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo blames himself for her death, as their trip to the Met was indirectly the result of his suspension from school. Audrey’s death echoes Fabritius’s own – he was a victim of the explosion of a gunpowder store in Delft in 1654.
Part of a fictional collection at the Met is Fabritius’s painting, the first painting Audrey’s “ever really loved”. It immediately reminds Theo of his mother: “something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself — its brightness, its alert watchful expression—made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.” And after the explosion, when Theo makes off with the painting at the insistence of a dying old man, it becomes his only connection to his mother. The small, unassuming work of art becomes the book’s centerpiece, at times weighing down the narrative to the point of frustration. Most disappointing, then, is Tartt’s resulting reliance on the trope of the ultimately redemptive power of art.
The Goldfinch is Tartt’s third novel, and her first in 11 years, which means that her fans have waited even longer for this book than they did for The Little Friend.
Though Kemp’s inevitably witty and slating review, a necessary requirement for a Hatchet Job of the Year shortlisting, concludes that “The Goldfinch is a turkey”, the book has also received widespread acclaim. Its mixed reception has been itself the subject of articles, most notably Evgenia Peretz’s piece in the July issue of Vanity Fair. We are forced to ask whether the book’s praise comes as a result of being long-awaited (fans will not let themselves be disappointed), or whether the book is noteworthy in its own right.
Significantly, while The Secret History, Tartt’s far better work received not a single award, The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April this year, was shortlisted for two more minor awards (the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction), and was selected as Amazon’s Best Book of the Year 2013.
The Goldfinch lies somewhere between 1992’s The Secret History and 2002’s The Little Friend, which means that fans of either or both shouldn’t be too disappointed. What links the three books is an unsettling secrecy – a sense that we are not being told everything; the opposite of dramatic irony, if you will.
While the book has been widely described as Dickensian – indeed, the craftsman James Hobart (“Hobie”), who takes in the “orphaned” Theo, can be read as a version of Joe Gargery – it lacks Dickens’ humour and eccentricity; her caricatures pale in comparison.
Where the book succeeds, much like The Secret History, is in the depiction of the kinds of friendships we all long for – those indescribably close connections formed out of loneliness, being taken in, being part of something, sharing secrets. In The Goldfinch, it is difficult not to envy the relationship between Theo and Russian teenager Boris Pavlikovsky, despite the absurdity of its trajectory. Their rebellious adventures make Theo more of a Holden Caulfield than, say, a Pip or an Oliver.
Despite being criticised for the implausibility of Theo’s story, we get the sense that Tartt is aware of it – she begins the book with a quote by Albert Camus: “The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” And it is the book’s madness that binds Theo and Boris and, in many ways, endears us to Tartt who lives a similar, admirable absurdity.