Review by Geetha Kulkarni
Last year, we were in the Netherlands for a week. Much of our time was spent in Amsterdam but we took a day trip to The Hague, to visit Mauritshuis. We went to this small museum specifically to see Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. While there, we had the opportunity to see several other wonderful pieces of art, we did not know the museum housed. There were several by Vermeer, Jan Steen and Rembrandt including The Anatomy Lesson. Among its treasures, the Mauritshuis has The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Seeing the painting is what set me on the path to reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch, an 800 page sprawling odyssey into the life of Theo Decker that takes us from New York to Las Vegas and to Amsterdam.
Theo Decker and his mother are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York when a bomb goes off killing young Theo’s mother. During that museum visit, Theo is the sole survivor in the museum room he finds himself in when the bomb goes off. He finds his way out of the museum carrying with him the famous painting Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius which is on loan to the Met for an exhibition. Theo, whose father left the family prior to this event, finds himself without a parent to care for him. His grandparents have no interest in looking after him. He lives for a brief time with his friend Andy’s family in a prestigious Park Avenue apartment till he finds his way to Las Vegas to live with his gambling, alcoholic father. In Las Vegas Theo befriends another neglected child, Boris, and the two young boys, who have no parental supervision lead a wasteful life involved with alcohol and drugs. When Theo’s father dies in a car crash Theo comes back to New York and lives with Hobie, Welty’s partner in the antique furniture business. The story of Theo’s life is the plot of the novel.
Sad as it is, I did enjoy the author’s treatment of what I consider the main theme of the novel, the plight of children not properly cared for. There is Theo, a bright child who under better circumstances might have amounted to something. However he has no parent or grandparent who seems to love him. He grows up without love, security, goals, direction or supervision. No adult cares for his physical needs, food, clothing etc, and there is no adult who sets a good example of how to live a good and meaningful life. What chance does such a child have to grow up normal? There are several examples in the book of such children besides Theo. Whether they are from poorer families as Boris is or from privileged families like Andy is, they are all neglected. Adults do not take parenting seriously, they are not kind and compassionate to children and do not provide even the basic necessities for their growth. The only likable adult in the novel is Hobie.
Unpleasant as Theo’s behaviour is I did feel sympathy for him. Child neglect is heart wrenching. Theo has a chance at making a good life for himself. He could have learnt the antique furniture trade from Hobie, run a successful business and found happiness but children with his background often grow up to be self destructive and he did just that. Equally sad is the story of Andy whose parents do not appreciate who he is but would rather try hard to change him into who they would like him to be.
Another theme in the novel is the connection between the painting of The Goldfinch and Theo’s life. Carel Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt who died in an explosion in Delft, Netherlands. Very few of his paintings survived the explosion. The bomb in the beginning of the novel echoes the explosion in Delft. The Goldfinch portrays a delicate bird, chained and therefore not free to fly. Theo is also similarly imprisoned by the limitations of his life, not free to grow up and bloom to be happy and fulfilled.
Art theft and duplicity in the antique furniture business is also a theme though I would have liked the author to better develop this theme. People with money look to buy art and antiques but they have no knowledge of either. Cheating them as Theo finds out is easy.
Tartt also gives us some philosophical treats now and then.
“I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me — and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool.”
” What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? What is completely foolish to pursue?”
Why is it we love beautiful things? People fail us but objects bring us joy. Is it because those images “strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find”?
It is a Dickensian novel set in the modern era, a modern day coming of age novel. And as we felt for Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, the reader does feel sympathy for Theo, Andy and Boris. But having said that, I found the book far too long with endless descriptions of drunken and drug induced behaviour. The relationship between Theo and the painting was not properly explained. What exactly did it mean to him? Why was he so attached to it? If he was so attached to it, why did years go by without his even looking at it? Another objection I have to the book is the end. Theo’s story is one that tells of human resilience. His mother’s memory does more for his redemption than any living adult. I could accept the end of Theo’s story. But the end of the novel with regards to how the painting is retrieved, that was far too neat an ending and highly unlikely.
I would recommend the book to those who have the time. If lack of time means you need to be choosy about the books you read, then give this one a pass. As for the Pulitzer? I did not see why.