Set against backdrops as diverse as uptown Manhattan and the empty, dust-blown suburbs of Las Vegas, Amsterdam at Christmas and New York’s GreenwichVillage, sophisticated drawing rooms and tawdry restaurants, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch shares with its predecessors a concern with the secrets of the past. The Goldfinch is, as others have already pointed out, an alternate, mostly secret history of Fabritius’ seventeenth century painting of a captive goldfinch. One of the aspects of the painting that interests art historians is that it’s a trompe-l’oeil, a deception of the eye, and it is perhaps not overly surprising to discover that one of the major themes of the novel is deception.
What is real and what is fake? Who is the deceiver and who the deceived? The Goldfinch takes us into the world of decaying upper crust Manhattan where keeping up appearances is of prime importance and the world of antique dealing and restoration: a milieu plagued by the possibilities of deception and false provenance. In his journey from early adolescence to adulthood, Theodore Decker, the narrator, weaves his way among characters as disparate as wealthy members of New York’s elite, drunken gamblers, Las Vegas loan sharks, east European gangsters, and aristocratic drug addicts. Yet all these people, despite their differences, share something with Theo. All are broken in some way; suffer from loss or trauma, nurse their secrets, betray their own dreams, believe themselves guilty.
The novel begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam where Theo, his “dreams for the most part . . .muddied with . . . indeterminate anxiety” (6), recalls how he came to be there. He claims that everything is his “own fault” and that everything “would have turned out better had she [his mother] lived” (7). But his mother died in a bomb attack on the Metropolitan Museum leaving Theo, one of the few survivors of the explosion, to cope for himself. Theo recalls his life since his mother’s death: temporary refuge with his friend Andy’s family, the Barbours, in uptown Manhattan; the reappearance of his father and the move to Las Vegas; his drunken, drug fuelled friendship with Boris; the death of his father and Theo’s return to New York and refuge with the furniture restorer Hobie whose business partner he becomes. At the centre of Theo’s life are two secrets: one, his unexpressed love for Pippa, another survivor of the blast, and, the other, the theft he committed in those moments after the bomb exploded, something he could have righted then or a few days after, something committed in the innocence of childhood and therefore possibly forgivable, but something that as each month and year passes becomes more and more impossible to resolve, and which ultimately draws him into the world of international crime.
In his loneliness and desperation, Theo is an intensely sympathetic character. But there are times in the novel when one comes close to losing all sympathy for him and understands why his teachers eventually lose interest, seeing him as an underachiever, undeserving of their efforts, someone who seems unprepared to make an effort, someone too lazy, too disengaged, and altogether too unreliable. As I was about half way through the book, I was so unsure about Theo that I cheated and skipped to the end. I wasn’t sure I wanted to cope with a conclusion that had no hope of atonement or redemption. The fact I continued obviously reveals that I did find the work’s resolution satisfactory. The last few chapters move far more quickly than the rest of the novel and felt, cynic that I am, perhaps somewhat unrealistic; however, Tartt’s manipulation of her plot does allow her to end the novel with the possibility of atonement. Given my desire for such an ending, it would be churlish of me to demand a less contrived denouement. Further, one can argue that the novel is Theo’s full confession and part of his act of contrition.
More important, however, I would argue this isn’t a novel where the plot is of primary interest. Yes, we are interested in what happens, but of infinitely more interest are the questions raised by the events and characters in the novel. To just what extent are we the product of our nurture and to what extent the manifestation of our nature? To what extent is anyone trustworthy? What are friendship and love? For what exactly should we feel guilt? What is true? To what extent is fiction itself unreliable deception? In this particular case, the fact that Fabritius’ painting was not stolen after an explosion—we can all go and see it in the Mauritshuis if we so desire—draws attention to the literal “un”truth of the work.
The Goldfinch provides no dogmatic answers to these questions. The novel’s ending does suggest the possibility of if not an optimistic then at least a moral as opposed to an amoral world-view. Perhaps that is sufficient. In its scope and in its moral centre, I find Tartt’s novel reminds me of the work George Eliot, another writer much concerned with personal and social integrity. It also affirms that the well-developed, linear narrative, dare I say, traditional novel remains a vital force.
If you’re interested in the picture, the URL below may be of interest. http://www.mauritshuis.nl/index.aspx?chapterid=2341&contentID=18308&SchilderijSsOtName=Titel&SchilderijSsOv=The%20goldfinch%