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Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchDue to various reasons it took me more than three months to complete The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I came across the name of the book accidentally (as it often happens with my reading pattern as I don’t interact much with avid readers) on a blog – don’t remember in what context. When I started reading the book I didn’t even know the meaning of “Goldfinch”. It is a bird primarily found in America and Europe. There is a finch family of birds (again, I wasn’t even aware of the word “finch”)

Why did it take me such a long time? Is it a tedious book? To an extent, yes it is, but that was not the main reason. In between I read another book. Then I was busy writing current affairs and political articles for various publications. Professional commitments, obviously. So at a stretch I couldn’t read the book for more than 30 minutes on a particular day. And for many weeks I couldn’t even get back to it. Hence such a delay.

No matter how tedious the book seems, reading Donna Tartt is always “paisa vasool” – what you may call in English, worth every penny you have spent – if you’re looking for an out and out intellectual experience while enjoying a good story. Does it mean The Goldfinch is a very good book? It depends on your reading habit. It depends on what you seek from a book.

She made a mark on me when I borrowed one of her first books, The Secret History, from the British Council library in Delhi. I don’t even remember getting the book issued on my own; I guess someone else got it for me as I wasn’t able to visit the library as frequently as I would have liked. Unknowingly I had decided, whenever she wrote her next book, I would read it.

Then, if I’m not forgetting, my brother-in-law brought The Little Friend to our house because he was reading it those days and then give it to me to read once he had completed. I dropped whatever I was reading those days (very little, maybe one book in a year, and maybe not even that) and read the book in 4-5 days.

Coming back to The Goldfinch, it’s a first person account of a boy named Theodore Decker who gets caught in a bomb explosion in a museum, when he was 13. Although he survives, his mother dies. After the explosion, when he comes to his senses, he finds himself near a dying old man who gives him a ring to deliver to someone. Before the explosion, he had seen this old man accompanying a girl he had been drawn to in an exceptional manner. Both the old man and Theodore – “Theo” – have no idea whether the girl has survived the explosion or not.

There is blood everywhere, his ears are numb, his head hurts, he cannot see, and amidst that, the old man goes on and on and while he’s talking to Theo he points to a small painting named The Goldfinch, supposedly painted by Carel Fabritius, a 15th century painter. There is total confusion and chaos. Theo isn’t sure whether the old man is going to survive or not. He promises to send in help, takes the painting and somehow exits the museum. Expecting another explosion and taking him to be just another kid loitering around the crime scene, one of the policemen chases him away without paying attention to what he’s trying to tell. He thinks that his mother is either still inside trying hard to come out, or she’s already out and heading towards home. Somehow he reaches home and starts waiting for his mother. He’s pretty sure that sooner or later she is going to turn up.

Beyond her mother there is no life for him. The alcoholic, abusive father has left them, bringing both of them closer. Her mother, a former, lesser-known model, had deep interest in arts, especially painting and Theo inherits some of that interest. Before the museum they were heading to Theo’s school because he had been suspended for either smoking on the premises or indulging in an activity that cannot be indulged in inside the school – I forget. Since there was some time left, they decided to visit the museum where his mother wanted to see one of her favorite paintings. Suddenly, she leaves him in a room, remembering that she wanted to have another look at a particular painting just for a few more minutes, and goes into another room which perhaps bore the maximum brunt of the explosion. At home, alone, he is convinced that his mother is alive somewhere, caught up in something unavoidable, and is going to come back any time. He even saves the leftover food for her. He saves the painting for her in his room.

The indifferent but highly concerned social services persons pay him a visit and then later on leave him under the care of his friend Andy’s upper-class family that takes him in with a flourish of formal and restrained familiarity. Theo and Andy are the quintessential bullied kids in the school in the typical American manner simply for being good at their studies. Andy’s parents welcome Theo into the family because they believe Theo helps Andy open up. The painting is still at the old apartment.

While staying at Andy’s place, Theo visits the downtown New York where James Hobart – Hobie – lives. Hobie is the person to whom the dying man at the Museum – Welty – wanted Theo to deliver the ring and probably the painting. Hobie and Welty were business partners. The ring Theo takes but leaves the painting behind because by now he is scared that if he reveals that the world-famous painting is with him (on TV he has been watching how there is a massive search for paintings that are missing after the explosion and people are being arrested), the police would arrest him and hand him over to the social services people. Hobie lives in a workshop-cum-apartment-antiques shop. At Hobie’s place he meets Pippa – the girl who was with Welty before the explosion, the same girl he had been so strongly drawn to. Pippa was Welty’s granddaughter. Aside from injuries in the limbs, she has also received grave injury in her brain and she mostly sits in a dazed state, listening to classical music. He spends some time with Pippa and as he makes further plans to visit the place on a repeat basis, he is told by Hobie that a distant aunt of Pippa’s is taking her away as she was badly injured in the head due to the explosion at the Museum and the treatment was not possible at Hobie’s place.

Andy’s family is about to adopt Theo when his father reappears and offers to take him to Las Vegas where he is currently staying with his new wife Xandra. With the help of the guards at the apartment building where he and his mother used to stay, he is able to conceal the painting and take it with him to Las Vegas.

Later on it is revealed why exactly his father brings him to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas he lives like a vagabond with no restrictions on drugs, delinquency, alcoholism and gambling – his father seems to be filthy rich and he seems to be getting all his money from gambling. In school he meets a new friend, Boris, the son of an alcoholic Russian contractor who constantly abuses his son. From thereon starts a lifelong friendship replete with drug abuse, betrayal and loyalty.

This is just the beginning of the story. If you ask me what the story is about, I would say it is about the small boy Theo who has to cope, all alone, the massive tragedy that he faces after the explosion. Why the explosion happens, who is responsible, the author doesn’t touch upon that piece of information. It just happens and wreaks havoc with multiple lives including Theo’s and Pippa’s. They are both shattered for life, Theo emotionally and Pippa both physically and emotionally. The painting, always remaining in the backdrop, plays the central part, because by clinging to the painting, he doesn’t want to let go of that moment when he lost his mother and everything precious that he had. Mostly it is about Theo’s and Boris’s friendship.

Donna Tartt seems to do lots of research while writing her books. For instance, Hobie buys damaged antique furniture, restores it, and then sells it to his selected clientele. There are some very detailed descriptions of the processes, emotions and materials involved during restoration. Painting, yes, The Goldfinch is the central theme and hence naturally there has to be lots of talk about various paintings, various painters and one feels like reading a highly seasoned art critique. Then of course, there are drugs.

In all the three books from Donna Tartt, The Secret History, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch, narcotics feature prominently. She talks about drugs like a person who has had first-hand experience. Lots of chemicals, even medicines that are otherwise taken for ailments, can induce drugs-type effects and hence, many people buy them just for that purpose. Lots of educational stuff if you want to get a glimpse of drug addicts.

She knows a lot about the topics she covers in her books and sometimes, because of that, she seems to ramble on and on and to a person who isn’t reading for the sake of reading (rather than getting done with the book), it may seem a bit offputting. There was a time when I was desperate to complete the book but it just wouldn’t complete. In the end, it goes on and on and one feels she is trying to imitate Ayn Rand. The book has its faults, as every other book. For instance, War and Peace is perhaps one of the best books you can ever read, but sometimes it needlessly seems to go on and on and tends to get boring.

Reading some books is like listening to the FM radio, you can drive and listen. Some books are like listening to some really good music for which you have to sit and pay attention. For classical music, you need to know your music. The Goldfinch is of the second category. You will have to pay attention. Your vocabulary should be good and you should be really interested in reading. With these attributes assumed, it is quite a good book. Otherwise, you may like to skip it.