Book reviews

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Dear alert Neighbors North Reader,

As you can see if you read on, this post has been mouldering, er, that is, incubating, for a while now.  We are months past the month of NaNoWriMo.

I apologize to those of you who have yet to read Ms. Tartt’s The Goldfinch.  I hope I haven’t given too much away about this wonderful book .

Yesterday I played hooky. Instead of cranking out 1650 plus words for NaNoWriMo, I plunked into the big black chair by the window, got cozy under the electric blanket, strapped on a pair of near smudgeless Bartell readers, and got reading. I had 250 pages to go on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and my copy was due at Seattle Public. I was sure to be done by noon, one at the latest.

My estimate was way off. At quarter past five I was still at it, but nearing the finish line with under 20 pages to go. Definitely we were going to be eating leftovers.

Was Finch worth it? In spades.

So where to begin. Do you want to know about the painting? Heroin-chasing, chaos-creating Boris? Hobart and Blackwell’s stuffed-to-the-gills furniture shop? The Central Park West Barbour family’s sailing addiction? The unforgiving Las Vegas sun?

Why do all the answers seem embedded in the pigment of a Sixteenth Century painting of a captive finch?

Maybe it’s best to begin with the punishments inflicted on Tartt’s whipping boy, Theodore Decker. Why does Theodore keep losing? His mother, his father, his best friend, the pale, red-haired girl. Enough already. He hasn’t even hit thirty yet.

Theodore encounters the chained little finch on a trip to a Manhattan art musuem. Studying the painting alongside Theodore and his mom are an elderly gent and a pale, red-haired girl. The girl is carrying a flute. She has an audition at Juilliard that afternoon. Decker is enchanted with the painting and the girl.

Their tour concluded, Mom steps into the museum gift shop; Theodore slips back through the galleries for another glimpse of the girl. Then the explosion hits—shades of 911?—and the walls blow out. Theodore comes to alongside the elderly gentleman, whose injuries are grave. Theodore is entrusted with the dying man’s Thoughts on Life as well as his ring. He is instructed to deliver the latter to Hobart and Blackwell Antique Furniture. He flees the wreckage with the old man’s ring and the bird.

Taking the painting doesn’t seem like a reckless act. Theodore just wants to save it. He hasn’t fallen in love with it. Or he has and doesn’t know it. Maybe the old man put the idea of taking the painting into his head. Hours later, it dawns on him that he has become a thief.

A decades’ long shell game of who’s got the painting follows. Some will want it for its beauty; some for the thrill of illicit ownership; some for the prestige.

A few days after the explosion, the wealthy, well-connected Barbour family, whose misfit son Andy Theodore befriended in primary school, take in the now motherless Theodore. Weeks later our hero ventures to Blackwell and Hobart to return the ring. He is befriended by Hobie, the deceased Mr. Blackwell’s business partner. He becomes better acquainted with Pippa, the red-haired girl. She is convalescing in her room above the furniture shop. The blast has left her with a barely perceptible limp and just enough nerve damage to cut short her dream of becoming a world class flutist.

Months later, absentee Dad steps in.  He’s found his missing son ticket and wishes to claim. Theodore pings off with Dad to an eerily underpopulated, upscale Las Vegas suburb, then pongs back to Manhattan on a Greyhound after Dad runs afoul of some shady baccarat associates and winds up squished between semis in a road kill sandwich. He is in Vegas just long enough to meet a young hedonist named Boris and cement his taste for vodka, whiskey, oxycodone and every heavy-duty med he and Boris can lay their hands on.

Back in Manhattan, Theodore’s plan is to bunk at the Barbours’ again, but a strange encounter with Mr. Barbour convinces him that’s a bad idea. He makes tracks to Hobart and Blackwell Antique Furniture instead. Feeling to blame for his father’s death—Theodore had the means to pay up the money Dad owed but didn’t act fast enough— as well as lingering guilt over Mom’s death in the explosion, he eats his way through the OCs, then snorts and swallows his way to oblivion with whatever drug he can get his hands on.

Finch continues with Theodore in his twenties. He’s gone into business with Hobie. Theodore works the customer angle at the front of the store, Hobie does restorations in the back. Pippa has chosen to remain aloof and Theodore has a thing going with Andy’s sister Kitsey, but her soulless, depthless beauty leaves him cold. He prefers Andy’s runny-nosed, forever running into walls, but sincere and mathematical brilliancy, or the beauty of Pippa, who has been broken and pieced back together like one of the chairs restored in her Granduncle’s shop.

He takes out The Goldfinch from its various hiding places whenever he needs solace from his soulless surroundings—until the day he realizes he’s been had and the painting’s been stolen from him. Also there’s the little matter of Theodore passing off fakes as real Chippendale. Theodore is convinced that good deeds never go unpunished. One might say he awaits his doom.

About then is when Boris reenters the story. And also when Ms. Tartt launches our hero on one final nail-biting, globe-trotting, goon-evading journey to recover the painting and get it back into the hands of the properly deserving.

Boris sees things slightly differently than Theodore: he infers that bad acts may lead to good.  As a lonely teenage boy on the Las Vegas frontier, Boris read The Idiot three times.  It was also the only book teenage Boris read, but no matter.  His views have been informed by it. But take Boris’ philosophy with a grain of salt: he hasn’t read anything lately but The Dragon Tattoo.

At story end Theodore has neither Pippa nor painting. He’s atoning for earlier missteps. He’s done chasing rainbows, but he isn’t done swallowing and snorting, and he isn’t much closer to knowing whether life on earth is ruled by the guiding hand of Divine Providence or if we’re all just pieces in a giant dice game.

And so to the painting with its nail marks in the corner, gobs of wax on the reverse, and paint slapped onto a humble plank. And the bird. Chained to its perch, black eye looking out, haughty and proud, it is a bird like no other bird. Instantly recognizable and wholly itself. But chained? How much pride can a captive creature have? And to what end?


What does it mean that the viewer sees the feathers so keenly, but also the paint? Illusion, truth? Falsehoods embedded in the real. The real embedded in the false. Is everything twinned? What is most important for the viewer to know?

What does it mean that an explosion knocked Fabritius, the bird artist, dead four hundred years earlier?



One thought on “The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. pmcmullen4888 says:

    Great post. Nicely done.

    In Waiting Area 2. Trying to stay awake

    Have seam ripper in hand.


    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S® 4 mini ™, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone


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