Early in Donna Tartt’s sprawling new novel, The Goldfinch, 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother, Audrey, take refuge from a rainstorm in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Audrey wants to see an exhibit of the Old Dutch Masters – Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Carel Fabritius, whom Audrey calls the “Greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of”.
What starts as an innocuous museum visit, however, shatters the lives of its central characters and sends Theo into a downward spiral from which it isn’t clear he ever fully recovers.
The exhibit is organised around the idea of “nature morte”, which Audrey explains to Theo as the painters’ way of showing that “living things don’t last. Death in life … the little speck of rot … if you look closer – there it is”. To illustrate this idea, she shows him Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lessonof Dr Nicholas Tulp, in which a gleaming corpse is surrounded by black-clad men, presumably medical students; and paintings by Franz Hals, including Youth with a Skull, which is also the title of the novel’s first chapter. The mini art lesson ends in front of Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, which she says is the masterpiece of the show. The masterpiece in question is smaller than any of the other paintings: a tiny yellow bird, held to its perch by a chain around its thread-thin leg.
Theo adores his mother and admires the art, but he can’t stop looking at a red-haired girl about his age who is walking through the exhibit with her grandfather. Theo and the girl exchange glances but do not speak, even though their respective grown-ups stand next to each other in front of the Fabritius painting. A celebrated painter in his era, Fabritius had been Vermeer’s teacher and Rembrandt’s pupil but he died when a gunpowder factory near his studio in Delft exploded. Most of his work was destroyed. “People die, sure,” says Audrey. “But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”
Almost immediately after her comment, a bomb goes off in the museum and the question of what, if anything, can be saved is no longer rhetorical; indeed the entire novel might be said to be an attempt to answer that question. Theo’s mother and the girl’s grandfather are among those killed in the explosions, but Theo and the red-haired girl survive. Survival becomes, for each of them, as much a burden as a gift.
After the blast, Theo sees the grandfather lying underneath the rubble; when the man grabs his hand, mumbling his granddaughter’s name, “some clear personable spark seemed to fly up through his eyes and I saw the creature he really was – and he, I believe, saw me”. This momentary link between a wounded young boy and a dying man triggers the novel’s major plot point: in his delirium the old man tells Theo that “someone” is trying to take the Fabritius painting, which is resting face down on a pile of rubble; he begs Theo to take it and keep it safe. Stunned and woozy from his injuries, bewildered by what has just happened, Theo slides the painting, smaller than a laptop, into an empty carryall he finds on the floor. Then, in a scene straight out of a thriller, the old man gives Theo his signet ring to give to Pippa, his granddaughter and “in a voice like he was drowning from the inside,” tells Theo to find a shop called Hobart and Blackwell and “ring the green bell”.
Theo flees from the museum after the old man’s death, forgetting he has the painting but certain that he has caused his mother’s death: they were only in the museum because they were en route to a meeting at Theo’s school to discuss why he’d been suspended. Theo’s escape from the bombed-out museum may remind readers of survivor accounts from 9/11, and in some ways it would be accurate to characterise the novel as a “post-9/11 novel”. Like other novels of that ilk, The Goldfinch explores the reverberations of catastrophe on human life and finds, as in the “nature morte” paintings, that death is everywhere. Theo’s picaresque journey – his search for peace, for Pippa, for a way to return the painting without being arrested – moves from the glittering mansions of New York society to the seedy underworld of Las Vegas, from high-end antiquities auctions to back room drug deals to European art hubs. The novel begins with the adult Theo hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, certain he is about to be arrested, for reasons we do not discover until the novel is almost over. The opening pages, in fact, read like a contemporary thriller and it’s only when Theo starts to remember that fateful day at the Met, which “sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail”, that the novel’s tone shifts dramatically.
The abrupt shift in tone – from thriller to bildungsroman – illustrates the novel’s pervasive problem: it’s trying to do too much. It’s a post-9/11 book; an art-heist thriller; a coming-of-age story; a love story; a meditation on grief, guilt, loss and familial love; and a discussion about the nature of art, the power of beauty, the definition of obsession.
If we were to explain the problem in terms of the novel’s own metaphor, we might say that the novel wants to be one of Rembrandt’s huge canvases, or a Hals street scene, in which an entire society is captured by the artist’s keen eye for detail. In The Goldfinch, however, although individual sections have brilliant moments and frequently beautiful prose, the sections do not themselves illuminate one another, and they do not come together as a cohesive whole. And while in a novel that clocks in at close to 800 pages there is room for a writer to play with multiple elements, without some central unity, the novel will – as this one does – collapse under its own weight.
In other words, the novel might have been more effective had it learnt from Fabritius and worked on a small canvas, maintained a tight focus that could “work its way into the mind and heart”.
So much happens in the novel – so much happens to Theo – that we are never given a moment to reflect, to attach ourselves to anything. It is a novel in which Theo talks a great deal about staring meditatively at objects and people – but the plot moves so fast and in so many directions that it prevents readers from doing the same thing. Theo tries to tell us that The Goldfinch has “no moral or story. There’s no resolution. There’s only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the … bird and our experience of it, centuries later.” These are thought-provoking words, but the novel itself, in terms of its story – its imprisoned bird, if you will – cannot bear the weight of Theo’s theorising.
And yet in the final paragraphs of the novel, Theo seems to alter his opinion.
The moral of the painting seems to be that it “taught [him] that we can speak to each other across time” and that “even if we’re not so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway”. His concluding words reach back to his mother’s comment, just before she died, about what can be saved from history: having The Goldfinch in his possession, even if only briefly, makes him one of the people “who have loved beautiful things … tried to preserve them and save them … singing out beautifully from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers and the next”.
Theo concludes that art can help us survive the “cesspool” of human life and the novel, in turn, wants to convince us of the same thing – but it tells us rather than shows, thus breaking one of the age-old truisms of fiction writing: show, don’t tell.
Fabritius’s goldfinch may persuade Theo that art matters, but Tartt’s Goldfinch, unfortunately, does not.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.