I 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.