The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Here is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher, around which the novel is centered:
Poor, little goldfinch. A famous bird he may be, especially now that he has been written about so eloquently by such a fascinating woman, but still he is caught with a chain by his foot. He is not free to fly. To find his own way. To be his own bird. He is trapped against his will, not of his own design.

This is the crux upon which Tartt has hung her novel. The New York Times describes The Goldfinch as thus: “a painting smuggled out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art after a bombing becomes a boy’s prize, guilt and burden.”  But, that is similar to the review I once read which summarizes The Secret History as being about hubris.

There is so much more. 

Donna Tartt opens The Secret History with the mention of a fatal flaw.  For Richard, the narrator of The Secret History, it was beauty at any cost. For Theo, the narrator of The Goldfinch, it is the ruthlessness of life: the harm done to a powerless boy when his parents divorce; the harm done when his mother dies in an explosion at the MOMA in New York  (similarly, Fabritius also died in an explosion at the Delft factory in Holland); the harm done when his grandparents don’t want him, much less his alcoholic father with whom he goes to live in Nevada. If it were not for Hobie, the antique furniture restorer, he would have no one to count on. Theo can’t even wholly depend on his often charming Russian friend, Boris. 

Together they drink. Steal. Practically overdose on drugs. Commiserate about the worthlessness of their fathers. 

There is no one in Theo’s life who is a dependable person, let alone a moral compass. Almost every character wallows in compromise, selfishness, and irresponsibility. Hobie, and his dear friend’s niece, Pippa, are the only two who shelter from the storm. Even Pippa, who suffers under the same trauma as Theo does because they were both in the museum when the bomb exploded, has only become his “morphine lollipop.” In other words, a person who can comfort, but not sustain, another.

This novel is about loneliness, sorrow and joy. It is about art and beauty. It’s about fate and questioning God. It’s about the deceitfulness of the heart which Tartt expounds upon at the closing of her book.

“How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.”  “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?”

I’ll explain it to you, Theo. The question is not “What if the heart can’t be trusted?” There is no doubt about hearts being treacherous for I, too, once believed in the adage to follow your heart. But, as anyone who does so knows, that is not the path to happiness. Why? Because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) 

And yet we try to follow what we think we want. We long to understand our motivations. Our wounds. And above all, our purpose.

Surely we’re more than chained, helpless birds, beautiful to look at but unable to fly away.

30 thoughts on “The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt”

  1. Kailana, then I think you should start with The Secret History which has long been one of my favorite novels. Though the story is different, the themes are parallel: loneliness, despair, purpose of life. Heavy stuff, and perhaps not for Christmas. On the other hand, maybe Christmas is the perfect time to ponder such existential thoughts.


  2. Edgar, thanks for your kind comment although I feel I can never so the really incredible authors justice. It is hard to write about when the themes are so large and the writing so tremendous.


  3. Harvee, while this book has thoughts on art and beauty in abundance I may have misled you into thinking its historical fiction. The only historical part is that the painting is real. Still, it is indeed a compelling read. I will be thinking about it for a long time. Yet even though I've long considered Tartt a favorite author of mine, with this read I see in many places how her philosophy differs from mine.


  4. It took me about two weeks, but I think that's partly because there are so many job/holiday responisibilities in my life right now! I liked reading it on my nook as it was so easy to hold; 700 plus pages did not seem so long somehow. I hope you like it as much as I did.


  5. Oh, dear, I would have loved reading it with you!! Still, I'll plan on coming round to hear the thoughts. It's such a complex book, filled with so many interesting ideas. (Not to mention mood, which is something I find Tartt especially strong at creating.)


  6. I was so mad/happy when I saw it for sale on amazon. Glad for all of you who were able to purchase it, sad that I paid almost 15.00 for it. Still, it's a book I would have paid even more for quite gladly, and I'd actually like the hardcover edition for my Tartt library. I have two copies of The Secret History, and one of The Little Friend, and The Goldfinch only on my nook. It's an easy way to read such a thick book, though. Quite light in the hands, if not so much in the heart! I'm looking forward to your thoughts, JoAnn.


  7. I, too, adored The Secret History. I've read it several times, but The Little Friend? Not once. I think I was afraid because of a tragedy happening to a boy who was my son's age at the time it was published, and for some reason that seemed too close to home to read then. Now that he's 23, I may be able to pick it up (as if a few years matter!). It's interesting to read The Goldfinch after The Secret History because I found many similar themes in them both. I find Tartt to be quite the philosopher, although many professional reviewers are comparing her to Dickens.


  8. I am so happy that you were able to see her 'up close and personal'! Wow, that must have been a wonderful experience. Perhaps your copy for your husband is signed? If not, it's still a wonderful gift. Especially after you both attended her speech.


  9. I'm just over halfway through The Goldfinch and I absolutely love it. I loved The Secret History, but am not really into art, so was a bit skeptical of what some called a “verbose” novel centered around art. This is more a coming of age story combined with an art mystery. So far, it's reminding me a bit of Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store.


  10. Sarah, I'm so glad to hear you're loving it, too. I think the focus on the painting is not the key theme; as you say, it's more about Theo and life philosophies. I am interested in Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store, which I've seen mentioned here and there. Perhaps a selection for my nook? 🙂


  11. I know which book I'm going to get soon…! I absolutely love The Secret History and reading reviews on The Goldfinch… I can't wait. It's very high up on my list 🙂


  12. I loved this book and spent three blissful weeks reading it (a luxury!). I love The Secret History but this comes a very close second. And now I'm minded to read The Little Friend Again. Tartt is a writer like no other and it really is the best book I've read this year!


  13. I absolutely loved The Secret History, too. In fact, I think I love it more than The Goldfinch, although there are quite parallel themes. The Goldfinch was so high up on my list I couldn't even wait until Christmas break to read it! 😉


  14. I can see that many people have it has their #1 read for 2013. It won't be my number one, although I loved the writing. It is a fabulous read, but something about the last fifty pages (and her quite dismal look at life) kept it from my #1 spot.


  15. I think it took me three weeks as well, partly because I took my time, and partly because I wanted to savor every part. I've never read The Little Friend, but after loving The Secret History, and dwelling on The Goldfinch, I'd like to pick up her “middle” book. Donna Tartt's writing is simply spectacular.


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