The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, 2013.
Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014
The Goldfinch embodies one of the good, engaging and endearing stories that I have found lacking in many of the Pulitzer Prize winning works of fiction for the past decade. With many of the past winners, I have had to force myself to the read the novel because of my commitment to read the Pulitzer winners. With The Goldfinch, I couldn’t put it down, thought about it when I wasn’t reading, and am still thinking about it now that I've finished the book. The fact that it won the Prize tells me that great fiction can still have a compelling, meaningful story. I knew this all along but it felt good to see that the Pulitzer jury for fiction and the Pulitzer board also viewed The Goldfinch as a great book, worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Frankly, I had begun to doubt that I could be carried away by a recent winner of the Prize. This admission says a lot about me and my taste for a good work of fiction. But what is wrong with a good story that carries the reader to a place and a situation where interesting characters are dealing with problems in life that a reader can relate to? I am glad I can enjoy such a work of fiction. My wife has a cousin who seldom enjoys a meal in a fine restaurant because there is always something wrong with the sauce, the wine, the coffee or the service. Can such a critic ever be happy with a meal?
The Goldfinch is a story about love, the loss of love, and the adjustments, good and bad, to the loss. It is also a story about fate, how life sometimes gives us bad luck or even tragedy but also manages to give us some good luck along the way. The central character, 13 year-old Theo Decker, lives in New York City with his beautiful and dearly-loved mother, Audrey. His father, Larry, deserted them a year ago but they have a happy life without him. Theo loses his mother in a terrorist attack in an art museum and his life is never again the same. However, he goes on with life, sometimes wishing it would be over because of how much he misses his mother. Theo finds a few good people along the way who give him what love and help they can provide so that his life has enough support and meaning to continue. Theo also acquires a painting, The Goldfinch by a Dutch master named Fabritius, on the same day that his mother is taken away from him. Without thinking clearly about it, Theo decides to keep the painting and it becomes the focus of Theo’s life and the focus of Tartt’s novel. Theo’s mother had loved the painting since she looked at it in an art book as a young girl. She had taken Theo to see it at a museum in New York on the day that changed his life. The Goldfinch painting, in real life,, is still housed in a New York museum. It helps Theo get through the loss of his mother as he clings to it to represent something of her. The Goldfinch makes him feel that somehow his life has meaning, partly because Audrey had loved it so much. The paining is part of the good luck Theo experiences in his life but it also leads to some of his greatest challenges.
As I see it, The Goldfinch deals with the issue of how the people in our lives often don’t meet all of our needs but by receiving what love and support they have to offer, and putting it all together, we can make a life that can be satisfying, maybe even happy. A poor adjustment to loss of the most important person in life could lead a person to reject all other sources of help. But Theo accepted the help and went on living. The day Theo lost his mother was also the day he was, by chance, introduced to Pippa, Welty, and eventually to Hobie, people who would end up being one his sources of love and emotional support. He also receives help from the Barbour family who end up loving Theo but not being able to show it directly after his mother’s death, when he needed it most. Pippa is a girl he encountered on the fateful day when Audrey died and Theo loves her through the whole story.
More ill fate enters Theo’s life when his father comes back after the death of Theo’s mother to claim his son. This father is bad news and bad luck for Theo. Larry and his girlfriend Xandra take Theo to live with them in the outskirts of Las Vegas where Larry is a professional gambler. Theo suffers major culture shock due to the fact that Larry is a poor father along with being a loser and a deadbeat. He pretty much ignores Theo and ends up in trouble for not paying gambling debts. Without parents to care for him, in a new environment and school, Theo makes the adjustment we might expect- he finds a friend in a similar situation. He becomes best friends with a Russian boy named Boris, who is also without a mother but has an alcoholic father and is essentially living on his own. They become inseparable friends and assist each other in becoming expert shoplifters and dependent on alcohol and drugs. All this time Theo has, or thinks he has, The Goldfinch painting hidden in his room. Fate steps in again to change Theo’s life when Larry is killed in a car crash. Theo panics and heads out on his own so he won’t be taken in by social services in Nevada, though Boris tries to get him to stay in Las Vegas.
Theo gets back to New York, as a sixteen year old with no family, and is faced with having to make more adjustments to what life has dealt him. The Goldfinch has the feeling of a Dickens novel such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations: boy on his own, facing great challenges, having to face life and deal with difficult situations. Donna Tartt has loaded Theo down with more than his share of bad luck and undesirable characters but also given him a number of good people who help him along the way. Hobie, an endearing character in the book, takes Theo in, gives him a home and eventually helps him end up in a career as an antiques dealer. Unfortunately, Theo continues with some of the shady dealings and drug use he started in Las Vegas. It becomes clear early on in The Goldfinch that Theo is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to what he experienced at the time of his mother’s death. The effects of PTSD follow Theo into his early adult years and make it hard for him to settle into a stable, drug-free life. His obsession with Pippa also makes it hard for Theo to go forward with marriage to a daughter in the Barbour family he has known for years. Then along comes Boris, and the Goldfinch painting, back into Theo’s life and more bad luck takes him down a road he couldn’t have imagined. Theo has to face a new set of challenges that almost prove too much for him but a will to live and cope, along with some good luck, get him through the crisis. The Goldfinch doesn’t end with Theo neatly working out all his problems but he does emerge as a more mature and self-aware person who seems ready to get on with a better approach to life.
It was interesting to me that the incidents in Theo’s life as a 13 year old took place roughly around the time of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001. Many children lost their parents and were traumatized by the attack. The story of Theo captures much of what likely played out in the lives of children and teenagers as their families and their lives were ripped apart by the attack. And some of these young people likely went through the same kind of difficult adjustments and PTSD that we see in Theo. The love of art, help from good people, and a will to go on living made it possible for Theo to make it to a better place. One can only hope that the young people affected by the 9-11 attack had the same mix of good luck and good people to help offset the bad luck in their lives. Some critics and readers may not have liked The Goldfinch for reasons they understand. I liked it for the reasons I have tried to share: it touched a place in my heart that wants to see a young kid with a lot of loss and bad luck, along with PTSD, find a way to adjust to life in some effective ways, using the good things fate also gives him, to end up with a life worth living.