The GoldFinch – Donna Tartt – Spew-litzer Prize Study in Victimology

I kept reading The Goldfinch for several reasons: it was my reading group’s selection, I had to facilitate the discussion, and it won the Pulitzer for Fiction.  This became the kind of book that I needed to set aside time to read, because it required effort.  I’m OK with effort, but I expect to gain something from it.

Here’s a summary from Evgenia Peretz’s critique in Vanity Fair, It’s Tartt – But Is It Art?  (July 2014 link) .

For the few uninitiated, The Goldfinch is a sprawling bildungsroman centered on 13-year-old Theo Decker, whose world is violently turned upside down when, on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother, among other bystanders. At the behest of a dying old man, he makes off with a painting—the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch. For the next 14 years and 700 pages, the painting becomes both his burden and the only connection to his lost mother, while he’s flung from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, encountering an array of eccentric characters, from the hard-living but soulful Russian teenager Boris to the cultured and kindly furniture restorer Hobie, who becomes a stand-in father, to the mysterious, waif-like Pippa, plus assorted lowlifes, con men, Park Avenue recluses, and dissolute preppies.

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius 1654

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius 1654

Theo is a likeable character, pitiable at first of course.  He’s 13 and he loses his mother.  Life sucks. In the western cannon, orphaned children are common and tragic circumstances the norm.  We expect him to suffer, and we even expect such suffering to last, but at some point we expect he will stand up, grow up, maybe even overcome it, who knows, rise from the ashes of the MET and his life.

So we root for Theo because we feel badly for him and we have hopes for him. He steals, he grieves, he lies, he deceives.  We get 771 pages of this and a foray with his less than loathsome father in, you guessed it, Las Vegas, a world populated with drugs, drink, and in the case of this book, drivel. If you want to wallow in the cesspool of life, look no further. Tartt commits the writer’s sin and stretches the Sin City chapters from what should have been 16 pages to 160 pages.

Save some trees, please.

The arc of a great story ends somewhere: the character changes, the conflict is resolved, something, some kind of change happens. So I kept reading.  I like Hobie and Boris and Andy, and as characters they are more compelling than our protagonist.

Theo never fails to disappoint.

***   SPOILER ALERT   ***

Here’s a list of critical decision points; these are moments in Theo’s life when he must make a conscious choice what to do.  I had to pare the list to spare you, but you get the idea.

Theo steals the painting from the museum and lies about Welty’s ring to Ms. Barbour, age 13
Theo indulges his grief: does drugs, drinks, steals, age 14-15  (160 pages in Vegas)
Theo lies to Hobie who takes him in when he returns to NYC; Theo sells fakes as antiques; builds a business based on lies; Tartt titles the chapter, “The Shop-Behind-the-Shop”  age 15 +
Theo agrees to marry his cheating fiancé Kitsey though he loves Pippa, age 23+
Theo steals from Hobie, his friend and mentor, refashions Hobie’s lifelong work and shop into a sham business, then leaves him to deal with the fall-out.
– In Amsterdam, attempting to take back the painting he stole, Theo murders Martin in cold blood, firing shots into his arm and head. He hides in Amsterdam to wait out the murder.
– Boris returns for Theo at Christmas to celebrate!  Theo receives a cool two million Euro from Boris, his partner in crime, because Boris’s tip led to the art recovery of the century with five other famous pieces, each with its own reward.

 

Here’s the climax readers have been waiting for:  the stolen painting of the Goldfinch is recovered, but Theo had nothing to do with it. He was busy hiding.

And the thieves, Theo and Boris, get the reward.

Had enough?

Too bad.  Tartt won’t stop.

Theo confesses all to Hobie who forgives him and says, “Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?” (Tartt 758).  Theo answers in the next and last chapter,”Sometimes you have to lose to win.” ( 759).

Then Theo  travels around for 11 months, hanging out in “airport lounges and hotels,” contemplating his life.  He writes to us, his “non-existent reader,” for ten more pages, sharing philosophical mumbo jumbo on life, on art, on love.

Theo’s in his late twenties.  He’s stolen a world famous painting and gotten away with it, hurt almost everyone in his life, murdered a man, and is left with millions, all so he may contemplate the meaning of art, truth, and illusion.

Here is an illusion:  this is art of the highest order.

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014:  Awarded to “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown), a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart. (2014 Pulitzer for Fiction Citation, link to site)

The Goldfinch is the study of a victim, a boy who lost his mother from a terrorist bombing and suffers long into adulthood.  Theo remains a victim who never rises above his circumstances, never overcomes adversity, and acknowledges he must “lose to win” and find good through “some strange back doors.”

After reading Don Quixote, this award winner reads like hackwork.  Cervantes said it well: ‘scholarship’ and writing “without virtue is like pearls in a dunghill.”

Nov 5, 2014

2 Comments

  1. mylinhshattan

    Wow! Harsh!! I agree with everything she said, but darn it, I liked it! The characters!! C’mon! Boris? The dad? They were so well done, I felt like I knew them! Zandra? I know her! It IS true, though, that you cared more for those characters than you did for the main character (who, ironically, I can’t remember HIS name-lol).

    Reply
    • mylinhshattan

      ( I posted the note above from a reader)Thanks for writing. I agree that Tartt wrote some characters well, but much of the reading was tedious. An engaging read for some I understand, but a Pulitzer?

      Another reader wrote, “Makes me want to skim the runners up to see if they were equally egregious, or if someone was literally robbed of the Prize!”

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

Stay Up to Date

Become a better reader and writer today and try the TreeHouseLetter for free. Always learning with a bit of fun.

Latest Posts

On the Double Negative, Circular Definitions, and Children

4 min read Double negative 2 Book recs, 1 short story Roe v. Wade A Double Negative by Lydia Davis At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.*...

Simba the Designer Dog? The Perfect Combination of 5 Breeds

3 Min read Dog DNA Wordplay with breeds AVAILABLE ON PODCAST On Spotify On iTunes Simba in June at 7 months, post "Breed Reveal" Bel-Ger-Sam-Box-Sky. Belgersamboxsky. Bel-Ger-Box-Sky. Belgerboxsky. Shep-Sam-Box-Sky. Shep-Box-Sky. Herd-Box-Sky. Box-Herd-Sky. BoxShepSky...

Notes on a Year of Love

3 Min read The Music in Prose Simile and metaphor 2 books AVAILABLE ON PODCAST On Spotify On iTunes My book group chose to read love stories. We read seven or eight books, a mix of modern and classic. The night was perfect, the trees lush and full; my skin felt alive...

Why I Write

5 Min read Creative process AVAILABLE ON PODCAST ON SPOTIFY The main window with view of pine, poplar and birch in the TreeHouse where I do most of my writing. MacBook with this letter on a portable table. I sit in a Herman Miller office chair, an essential for the...

“The Q-tips Are for Your M4” and the Art of the Paragraph

3 Min read Writer's toolbox Improve writing immediately Book rec AVAILABLE ON PODCAST On SPOTIFY The Q-tips are for your M4, Norah's uncle said as she held them up when unpacking her 7.62 ammunition canister. Norah reached in the green ammo can and took out 100 feet...

“Keep the Faith for Which They Died”

4 Min read 3 Poems by John McCrae, a Poet Warrior Poetry for Emergencies Memorial Day The "MURPH Challenge" or Workout of the Day AVAILABLE IN PODCAST On SPOTIFY Click links above to listen to the poems This Memorial Day I read other poems written by the Canadian...

The Last Recital

2 Min read Piano music, composers Writer's Toolbox: the series and the infinitive phrase AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Silvermine School of Music, former Carriage House (built 1903) I shall not forget the old carriage house, the hayloft used for bedrooms, the balcony...

Topics

Become a better reader and writer today and try the TreeHouseLetter for free. Always learning with a bit of fun.