The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

GoldfinchWhy this book:  Selected by my literature reading group.  Interesting that a number of those in the reading group had already read it and wanted to read it again – even though it’s 770 pages long.  This book has been widely acclaimed and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Summary in 4 sentences:  The story is told in first person from the perspective of a young man sharing his thoughts, fears, and perceptions of the world during a difficult 10 or so year period of his life – it could be called a “coming of age” novel.  It begins when as a 13 year old boy living with his divorced mother in NYC, he and his mother are in the NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and seemingly everyone in the vicinity,  but he somehow survives. When he comes to after the explosion, he is with an older man who just before he dies hands him his ring, an address, and a painting – “The Goldfinch” – a very valuable painting from the Museum.  Our protagonist leaves the museum unseen with the painting, and the rest of the book is about his struggles over the next 10+ years to come to terms with that event, feeling essentially alone in a chaotic world where he has no roots, trying to find his own identity and some sort of happiness – while secretly having in his possession a stolen and invaluable work of art from the Museum.

My impressions:  The story in The Goldfinch is like a labyrinth – twisting and turning and it is often unclear where it is going, and what the point is.  The story itself is NOT is NOT what makes this books special – what is compelling is the cast of very interesting characters, the truly exceptional writing of Donna Tartt and the underlying morality play that one only sees at the end. The book culminates in the last 30 or so pages.  In the young man’s thoughts and perspectives looking back, the entire story made sense to me.  The story was interesting enough, but the conclusion made the book truly exceptional.   I felt I really did need to go through the whole book for the conclusion to have its intended impact.

The book begins with our protagonist in a hotel room in Amsterdam, in considerable despair over his prospects, and then pretty rapidly, goes back 10 or so years to the beginning of the story that got him there.

As a 13 year old boy, Theo, our protagonist, is left adrift in the world after his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing while the two of them are Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He had always been  a shy but smart boy, very close to his mother, not terribly assertive, and a target to the bullies in elementary and junior high school.  Now, without a trusted adult to help him, he is faced with social workers, school counselors, a host of “helpful” people who he didn’t trust, didn’t like, feeling sorry for him, trying to help him.

First he lives with the family of one of his friends, then his alcoholic estranged father shows up with his girlfriend and takes him to Las Vegas.  There, as a latchkey kid, he gets into drugs, trouble and connects with Boris (more on him later) a young Polish kid who likewise is somewhat adrift in American society.  Their bizarre alcohol and drug induced adventures culminate when Theo’s father is suddenly no longer in the picture, then Theo leaves Las Vegas and Boris, and makes it back to New York City, at which point he’s about 16 years old.  He reconnects with people he’d known there as a younger man, finds his way into college, but still feels lost and alienated. Then the story jumps ahead eight years to when he is a young adult running an antique store and selling counterfeit furniture at exorbitant prices. And then his old friend Boris comes back into his life.

Throughout all of this, he has the painting of The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.  The authorities know it is missing and a significant reward is offered for it.  Young Theo is very aware that he has in his possession an invaluable work of art that he had stolen.  Ever since that day in the museum when he walked out with the paining, fear and paranoia are always in the background of his life.   He is very afraid of being found out, yet the painting has something of a spell on him: His mother was a gifted art historian and the painting represents to him his mother’s passion for art and his connection to her – one thing of value he has as a result of the tragedy of the explosion that killed her.

Throughout the book, we are inside Theo’s head, sharing his fears, anxieties, concerns, and he has a lot of them. He doesn’t have much fun or joy – and unable to relax and amuse himself, he readily lets Boris take him down the path of alcohol and drugs.   He is suffering from a type of PTSD after the loss of his mother and any semblance of order in his life.  The things and people he should be able to count on, seem always to let him down – except for eventually, the owner of an antique store, the partner of the dying man who handed him the painting after the explosion.  This man – Hobie – is honest and truly cares for and trusts Theo.  But Theo is even unable to trust him completely and ultimately betrays him as well.

When he reconnects with Boris, Theo is a young adult, and his life is beginning to fray.  Theo then lets Boris pull him into the dark underworld of traffickers in stolen art.   Eventually, the story comes around to where the book began – Theo in despair in Amsterdam.  The conclusion and resolution of the various tensions in the story are surprising and very well done. And then we get to Theo’s insights and lessons learned about life – looking back.

Boris is a very important character in the book  – certainly the book’s most interesting character.  He is a complex mix of wisdom and chicanery, of philosopher and short sighted hedonist, a man of integrity and a con man and opportunistic thief.  Typical of how we perceive mafia and other criminals, the law is of little interest to him other than as an obstacle to overcome in order to get what he wants.  But personal honor, loyalty and friendship are valued above all. Boris is in some ways heroic, in some ways bad, but never evil.  He has a number of redeeming qualities.  He is Theo’s tempter and nemesis, as well as his mentor, inspiration, and savior.

There is a very interesting passage, in which Boris is discussing the complexities of good and evil with Theo and chastising him for his constant second-guessing:

Where does it ever say , anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions?  Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out  to be right?… I have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false.  The two are never disconnected.  One can’t exist with the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.  But you – wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’  ‘what if.’   ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘ I wish I had died instead of.’   Well – think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no – hang on – this is a question worth struggling with….”

In the end, Theo seems to have taken some of Boris’s perspective on board, and shares how he has come to realize how very complicated life indeed is, how nothing is simple, nothing is what it seems.   Any efforts to understand people or actions as either good or bad are incomplete and short sighted.

In one particularly powerful passage toward the end, he asks, “How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’ ”  But then he asks,

“What if one’s heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues, and instead straight towards a beautiful flair of ruin, self immolation, disaster?….If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away?…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 of being somehow a better person? Or – like Boris – is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”

Theo spent his life hovering between these two ends of the spectrum, never completely deciding one way or the other. Boris represented the rebellious soul, while all around him there were reminders of the pressure to get back in line and be a part of respectable society.   In the end, he is still uncertain and ambivalent  – it’s complicated.   He is still trying to figure things out, but has a wisdom and thoughtfulness that put him on his way to having values that he is willing to stand by, even though he sees no God or over-arching meaning.

Also in the end, his nihilism can give way to joy. “…and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

Art, love, beauty are to be found in what he refers to as the middle space between our minds and reality.  There is much in this book about beauty and art, as well as the sufferings of fallible human beings.

During our reading group discussion we realized an important similarity between The Goldfinch, and the last book we read, Zorba the Greek:  Both are first person narratives from the perspective of men who are unsure of themselves and their masculinity, each cautious and reserved, and with a tendency to over-think issues and challenges.  And both men were contrasted with strong, assertive and uninhibited characters with a disdain for conventional responsibilities, a strong sense of personal freedom, and a promiscuity toward mischief and unfettered self-expression. Indeed Zorba and Boris have a lot in common.

The Goldfinch is a very worthy read.


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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