Not a House Sparrow: Thoughts on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Goldfinch ThumbnailI wanted to peel back the trompe l’oeil cover of Donna Tartt’s newest book, The Goldfinch, to see more of the little bird. At first glance, to my American eyes, it looked sort of like a house sparrow, a drab bird I count among my least favorite visitors to our backyard feeders.* The goldfinches I know are often bright yellow, which is quite different from the dull face peeking out of Tartt’s book.** Her goldfinch is the European goldfinch, a portion of a 1654 painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius.

In Tartt’s novel, a bomb explodes while 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother visit this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That day transforms from “a perfectly ordinary day” to one that “sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.” Theo says, “If that day had gone as planned… What would I remember of it now? Little or nothing. But of course the texture of that morning is clearer than the present, down to the drenched, wet feel of the air.” Many would probably agree with Theo that we often think of traumatic events as being seared into our brains, never forgotten. However, there is a debate about whether traumatic memory is static. It’s possible that our coping mechanisms alter our version of events over time. In my own life, for example, I’ve noticed that my memories of the most traumatic event I’ve experienced thus far have changed, like a product of whisper down the lane. If I hadn’t written down what had happened soon after the event, I wouldn’t know where to draw the line between fact and fiction in my account.

The trauma Theo Decker has experienced is unimaginable. Not only does he struggle to cope with the tremendous loss of his mother, but he also struggles with what to do about a problematic acquisition: Fabritius’ painting. Theo took it from the museum. Painting in tow, Theo shuffles from house to house, from Manhattan to Las Vegas to Manhattan, in search of stability and love. To the extent he finds a secure home-life, Theo threatens to ruin it with drug abuse, lies, and other self-destructive behaviors. His story is fascinating and improbable — and possibly unreliable, despite Theo’s reassurance that his account does not come merely from his memory several years after the events.

While this ambitious, over 750 page novel is interesting and well-written, there were a few aspects of it that did not sit well with me. First, the rambling, highly detailed narrative tested my patience. I would have cut out at least the last 3%, which, though not called such, was essentially a preachy epilogue. Second, and I say this as a Harry Potter fan, there were way too many references to the boy wizard and his world. I’m beginning to think that the name “Lucius” should be retired from literature altogether. Third, I thought it was odd for a young man who grew up with Harry Potter in a post-9/11 world to burn/buy CDs and write letters. Do people of his generation engage in such activities? Even I don’t anymore, and I’m older than he is.

Overall, though, it’s a compelling novel about a flawed, but endearing, young man whom I enjoyed “meeting.” I’m glad that the little goldfinch made the introduction (and that no credit is due to a house sparrow).

*For a sympathetic perspective on house sparrows and great pictures of the little nuisance, check out Donna’s post at Garden Walk Garden Talk, Sparrows on Parade for World Sparrow Day.

**Well, at least the male American goldfinches are bright yellow during mating season. Author and photographer Theo Fenraven posted a great picture of one.

17 thoughts on “Not a House Sparrow: Thoughts on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

  1. Pingback: “The Martian” Brushes His Teeth And Shaves Every Morning (And So Should You) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. I am exercising great restraint and NOT reading this… until I finish the book. It opens like Dicken’s and then when it hits Vegas it swerves solidly into new Tartt territory. Can’t wait to see what you thought of it.

          1. Finally! It was immersive, and you’re right — rambling. Her editor should have caught the anachronisms and the constant Potter references, but… I find even weeks after I’ve read it I keep thinking about it, and the complete universe she created. It might be my favorite novel of the year, along with “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”. Joyous Holidays to you and a Happy New Year! xox, V

  3. I am so looking forward to this novel – I am getting the hardback as part of my Christmas pressie from my mum (I know she has bought it because I told her where it was on offer) I will be tucked up with it by Boxing Day 🙂

  4. Nice review AMB – 750 pages is certainly ambitious for both writer and reader.

    Yes, strange how the memory can be tricked. At least once I’ve been proven wrong when I’ve been 100% certain of the facts of an incident. And there are others that go around that seem to make their life history up as they go along, never mind the facts 🙂

    1. Yes, 750+ pages was a challenge for me (especially these days–I have no time)! As for unreliable memories, I’ve met quite a few people who seem to make up their life histories as they go along. It’s amusing until they start challenging my version of events!

  5. Jaclyn

    I’m about 75 pages from the end, so I was interested to read your thoughts! I had heard that THE GOLDFINCH was a book people either loved or hated but for me it’s falling somewhere in the middle. So far I think it’s very well-written, captivating and intriguing, (and oh, I love Hobie!) but I’m not blown away by it. I don’t see it becoming a favorite, even though I am really enjoying it.

    1. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on it! It’s interesting to hear that it’s a polarizing book. The only reviews I’ve seen so far are positive (I’ve read only a couple).
      I hope you’re having a nice weekend! We had my twins’ 6th birthday party today (a few weeks early due to scheduling issues), and I’m exhausted!

  6. I had to smile about the goldfinch looking like a house sparrow. Thank you for the link too. I always thought we do have traumatic events seared into our brains, but you maybe right on distorting the events over time. I guess that is why eye witness accounts are often unreliable as people see events differently, especially as time goes on.

    1. Hi Donna! Thanks for producing such memorable posts, like the one on the sparrows. Yes, eyewitness accounts really are unreliable, particularly over time. When I was on a jury, the eyewitness accounts didn’t end up swaying anyone.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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