Monday, May 5, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's lovely fluid prose in her 770-page Pulitzer-prize-winning novel The Goldfinch carried me through the convenient events and deus ex machina ending that would have dammed up a lesser book. I read it in a week because I had to know what happened next, whether our young narrator was learning from his mistakes or merely being more clever about concealing them. And I had to know what would happen to the exquisite small painting, The Goldfinch of the title.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his art-history-passionate mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when a bomb goes off. Separated from his mother in the chaos, Theo assists a fatally-wounded man who gives him his signet ring, tells him to seek out his partner, and also urges him to take the painting The Goldfinch, otherwise likely to be damaged in the collapsing gallery. Slipping past the firemen, Theo flees the museum with the ring in his pocket and the painting in a bag. Soon he learns his mother was killed in the blast. The ring connects him to an antiques restorer on the Lower East Side, and in the company of this kindly man, the appreciation for beauty Theo's mother planted in him takes root.

His estranged father shows up, girlfriend in tow, and they bring him to her house in a nearly deserted exurb of Las Vegas, where he is left to his own devices. In the local school he meets Boris, a Ukrainian youth whose father is an engineer, in the field weeks at a time. With virtually no supervision, this pair do what you might expect from teenage boys: they drink, they use whatever drugs come their way, they steal from the local market, they fight and remain friends. Boris is fearless, whether in accepting beatings from his drunken father or in shoplifting groceries so he and Theo won't starve, and he persuades his less-worldly friend that his own father is a kinder man and better parent than he gives him credit for.

Avoiding spoilers, I'll stop there with the plot, except to say that there's a hiatus of some years in which Theo grows up and finds his niche in the world - and remains in thrall to this non-negotiable treasure, the painting.

Tartt makes some fine observations about the transitory nature of human life and the longer span of art:  
"I was different, but it wasn't. And as the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past."
"It's there in the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are - hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible - and then, at a distance, the miracle... the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone."

And with a painting as inspiration, Tartt has made her own work of art.