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February 4, 2014

“The Goldfinch”

by Anne Paddock

Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be. Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?”…this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the moving story of Theo Decker, a 27-year old man holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam trying to figure out what his next move will be. Cold, sick, and tired, Theo is a virtual prisoner destined to spend Christmas alone in a feverish sleep when a dream brings a visit from his long dead mother and although no words are spoken between mother and son, there is a silent understanding when their eyes meet.  Theo wakes and in a moment of clarity, knows what he must do and more importantly, what he must not do.

A confessional novel told from the perspective of Theo, The Goldfinch covers a 14-year period in Theo’s life beginning when he is 13 years old and living in New York City with his mother, Audrey, a beautiful and attentive mother who works for an advertising agency. Theo’s father, Larry recently abandoned the family which leaves Audrey struggling financially. When Theo is suspended from school, a conference is scheduled for late morning causing his mom to miss work. While trying to kill some time and get out of the rain, Audrey and Theo duck into a museum where Audrey shows Theo a magnificent painting called The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, a Dutch painter who died when a gunpowder factory exploded in 1654, destroying most of the town and killing many of its inhabitants.

409px-Fabritius-vinkThe Goldfinch is one of the few paintings by Fabritius that remain in existence (and is currently on display in  Mauritshuis, an art museum in The Hague, in the Netherlands) and is admired by Audrey who explains to her son that “Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him” but all Theo sees is “a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition,and the simplest:  a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”

A bomb explodes in the museum killing Audrey but sparing Theo, who takes the small painting from the rubble and escapes the mass destruction. And, this is where the story really begins. Theo hides the painting and takes the reader on a 14-year roller coaster ride. Part Oliver Twist and reminiscent of Appointment in Samarra, The Goldfinch is the compelling story of what happens to a child when he loses the most important person in his life and is thrust into situations in which he has very little understanding, control, or direction. If there is ever a question over how much freedom a teenager should have, this book would surely settle the argument.

The painting of The Goldfinch is both unimportant and significant in the novel in that Theo as a child does not grasp the greater meaning or the metaphor of how the painting relates to his own life. Only as an adult does Theo view the painting in a more meaningful way:
When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point:  a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature-fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.
A 771-page book that also gives the reader insight into the greed and fraud within the antiquities and art world, The Goldfinch is particularly noteworthy because the ending of the book really starts 150 pages from the end when the reader is returned to the hotel room in Amsterdam. Theo is still a young man, tormented by the past and afraid of the future but in a moment of lucidity knows
That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.

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