Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Goldfinch


     They say that if a person watches a lot of TV, he runs the risk of overestimating how many friends he has. I, however, find my friends in books, and Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch (recently named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), introduced me to quite a few. Tartt had me so enmeshed with her characters, so invested in their lives, that I had to go through a mourning period once I finished the book. 

The novel follows Theo Decker from adolescence into adulthood after he loses his beloved mother, Audrey Decker, in a terrorist attack in chapter four of this 800-page novel. After his mother’s death, Theo is racked with guilt. If he hadn’t been suspended from school, he and his mother wouldn’t have found themselves in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seeking shelter from the rain on their way to a conference with Theo’s teachers. And if he hadn’t been so captivated by a red-haired girl holding a flute case who was among the crowd at the museum, he wouldn’t have squandered his last few moments with his mother before the blast. 

Theo comes of age as he is passed around from one makeshift family to another, and as he struggles to find his place in each new family and his identity as a motherless young man, Tartt’s writing is so compelling and veracious that his crushing sorrow and longing resonate acutely and profoundly. Most of the novel is set in flashback. At the very beginning, as an adult, Theo dreams of his mother:
 At the sight of her, I was paralyzed with happiness; it was her, down to the most    minute detail, the very pattern of her freckles, she was smiling at me, more beautiful and yet not older, black hair and funny upward quirk of her mouth, not a dream but a presence that filled the whole room: a force all her own, a living otherness. And as much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t turn around, that to look at her directly was to violate the laws of her world and mine; she had come to me the only way she could, and our eyes met in the glass for a long still moment; but just as she seemed about to speak — with what seemed a combination of amusement, affection, exasperation — a vapor rolled between us and I woke up. 

Often, Theo can only be comforted by his mother’s favorite painting, “The Goldfinch,” by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. The piece depicts a bird chained to a perch, symbolizing Theo’s imprisonment by his grief. Theo is not merely a sympathetic character, though. Tartt has made him fully formed: at times selfish, dishonest, and self-destructive. Her secondary characters are just as fleshed out. Boris Pavlikovsky, the best friend he makes in Las Vegas, is equal parts charming and terrifying. Hobie, the gentle-giant furniture restorer who opens his heart and home to Theo, is as kind as he is naive. 

In fact, it’s Hobie whom I find myself recalling most often. Whenever I feel like I need to unwind, I imagine grandfatherly Hobie ushering me through “a dim room, richly carpeted, where black urns stood on pedestals and tasseled draperies were drawn against the sun,” into a kitchen lined with books and a table with a flowered tablecloth. Like he did for Theo, Hobie offers me cheese-on-toast and tea and invites me, with his disarming questions and polite, no-pressure demeanor, to tell him my woes. 

      Such is the power of a truly great book. The author has birthed these characters to life with such depth and humanity that you come to know them intimately, at their most vulnerable. Even if I can’t drop in on Theo to see how he is doing or have tea with Hobie, the novel has caused a psychic shift. Just as good relationships with living, breathing friends have the power to make you more compassionate, more self-aware, and more generous, so too can great fiction, and I feel privileged to count Donna Tartt’s exquisitely executed characters among my friends.