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Book Review – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Synopsis:  It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

First Line:  While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.

Random Quote:  When he opened the door, the shades were down, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, which was aromatic and perfume-smelling, with an undertone of sickness and medicine.Over the bed hung a framed poster from the movie The Wizard of Oz. A scented candle guttered in a red glass, among trinkets and rosaries, sheet music, tissue paper flowers and old valentines along with what looked like hundreds of get-well cards strung up on ribbons, and a bunch of silver balloons hovering ominously at the ceiling, metallic strings hanging down long like jellyfish stingers.

 
Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, 1654

Review:  I am a fan of Donna Tartt – her first book, The Secret History, is one of my all-time favorite books, one I revisit often.  It’s hard to be an author who wrote an outstanding memorable first book – everything else rests against the first and is often found lacking.  I like everything she’s written, though, and was excited to get my copy of The Goldfinch.

My father was an artist, who also taught art history, so I grew up looking at art – from him I gained a love of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and of earlier work by Caravaggio and Turner and on and on.  My mother loves the Dutch masters and passed that love on to me – the stately procession in the work of beauty and fertility juxtaposed with rot and death all anchored in that incredible Northern light.  Perhaps it is this relationship to visual art, to the reading of a visual work, that so attracts me to the The Goldfinch.
Ms. Tartt captures the moments in an art museum when you are transfixed and forever changed by a glimpse at a painting, the moment when you see something reproduced in a book, the visceral full body rush that sweeps over you when a painting reaches out and touches you.  For Theo’s mother, this painting is Carel FabritiusThe Goldfinch, a gorgeous little 17th century Dutch painting of a goldfinch chained to a perch.  It is a painting made with a loaded paintbrush handled with exquisite control portraying its subject against a light background in stark visual contrast to the darker, heavier backgrounds favored by his teacher, Rembrandt.  Look at Fabritius and you can see where Vermeer came from – that mix of tight control and invading, enveloping, overpowering light – the subject caught by circumstance, by the painter, by the light, by the moment, by their chains, by their life, by their mortality.  In a very real sense, this is the underlying subject matter of Ms. Tartt’s novel and these themes resonate throughout.
The Goldfinch is of necessity a post-9/11 novel, particularly since its start is a collection of visual moments interrupted by a bomb that turns the landscape into gray ash, flickering emergency lights, fallen stone and timber and ceiling tiles.  Despite the loaded implications of the moment, the novel sweeps past cliche with an ever-shifting forward movement even as the reader and the protagonist are chained to our perch, our memories of the moment, the desire to break free and to return to the familiar before it happened, before the noise, before the ash took it all away.
Theo’s journey takes us from the bombing at the museum on a journey through a young man’s life and the places and people and light (or lack of light) that populate it.  It is in its strongest moments a visual experience with language that suits each moment as Ms. Tartt stretches out through the tale.  It is not all one thing, it is not all pretty, it is not tidy and compact, but it is resonant, and it is arresting, and it is worth more than one read.
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