So, you’ve decided to read The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.
The scene opens on a young man languishing, feverish, in a hotel room in Amsterdam, pacing and frantic and desperate for escape from tragedy of his own creation: a tragedy we know, somehow viscerally, must involve orphans, Las Vegas, pills, unrequited love, Russian mobsters, murder, and international art theft. To understand the relevant details of the drama, we are told by our narrator that we must go back to a tragic spring day, 14 years earlier…
13-year-old Theodore Decker enters the Met on a stormy April morning, and when he exits he has lost a mother (and perhaps his sanity), and gained an albatross of such significance and magnitude that it alters the course of his life, and the lives of all around him. From that fateful day (and fate has much to do with everything in Theo’s story), his former life is shattered, the pieces tossed to the wet Manhattan wind, and a new and terrible story is set into motion. From the rich society apartments of Park Avenue (more Augustin Boroughs than Glass family, in this reader’s opinion), to the foreclosed simulacra of suburban-sprawl Las Vegas, Theo stumbles through boyhood and youth. Throughout his travels, both internal and external, he continues to search vainly for the mother he has lost.
Tartt’s third doorstop of a novel has been given any number of historical literary epithets: most reviewers have leapt to “Dickensian” within the first breath, although New York might legitimately lay claim to Theo Decker, the young narrator and protagonist, who is as real and evocative a Manhattanite as any moping, precocious Salinger adolescent of yore. The action of the book leaps around with its timeline, but even when we are flown, willy-nilly, to Europe, this is an American Novel above all else; the great, sweeping, effervescent, sumptuousness of its history, characters, language, and cultural imagination feel singularly of-the-US, and most particularly of-New-York.
That being said, the parallels this reader found most striking (and most appealing) are Russian, rather than American or British. While there are a great many allusions to The Idiot, scattered throughout The Goldfinch, it seems clear that the Prince Myshkin of this drama is in fact Boris, Theo’s slavic imp of a best friend. Boris teaches Theo to steal and drink, and gives him the pills that will eventually make him an addict, but despite these crimes, Boris seems to drift through life in a haze of brotherly love and innocent well-meaning. Everything about Theo’s narrative, however, seems ripe for a comparison to that much more well-known (in the western world) masterpiece of Dostoevsky’s: the one that deals more specifically with the repercussions of a crime.
I have always had a soft spot for dear Rodion Raskolnikov: there are so many more loveable heros in Russian literature, but R.R. has something of the tragic bad-boy about him that I cannot quite resist. Although Theo’s initial crime is hardly premeditated, his all-encompassing psychological punishment is reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s, as is his belief that fate has marked him, “The Goldfinch” his hamartia. There is something of Dostoevsky in Theo’s doomed love affairs, his singular obsession with guilt, his drug and drink-addled dreams, and his fever-tinged flight at the end of the book (I am giving nothing away here). Even the reasoning behind the two crimes (Theo’s and Rodya’s) is, at the end of The Goldfinch, one and the same: the criminal’s hope for meaning, the transcendence of the individual. There is also similarities in written style: something about the narration that draws the reader in to such an extent that, when the main character is in bed with chills and a fever, the reader herself feels the need to put on a sweater and brew some Russian tea.
More than anything, our hope for the hero’s redemption is poignantly similar in both novels. Rodya is not a bad sort of fellow, murder and theft aside, and we wish the best for him, despite his sins: he is essentially an Everyman, fallen from grace, working to be redeemed. Theo is a bit more complex: he believes himself unworthy, even incapable, of redemption, even (especially) at the very end. Whether it be the tragedies of his youth that have marked him, or whether he is (as he believes) somehow rotten at his core, it is clear that his life will never again be simple and happy, as it was before the loss of his mother, his personal and moral center. Despite all of this, it’s hard not to like Theo, and therein lies the genius of Tartt’s masterpiece.
Although not perfect–yes, it’s long, and somewhat rambling, and perhaps a bit dark for some tastes–The Goldfinch is a Great Novel, a real five-star read. It has everything I love in a book: a wildly rollicking plot that is as dizzyingly fun as it is addictive; a wonderfully lovable/hateable narrator, well on par with Holden Caulfield yet far less annoying to the over-17-set; and, overriding it all, writing of such breath-catching poetry, peppered with philosophically-satisfying one-liners, old Fyodor would be proud.
So go on: give it a whirl.