Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: As precious and unique as a lifelong friendship

I absolutely loved Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, liked The Little Friend, and strangely enough had no expectations regarding The Goldfinch at all. First because the plots and storylines of the first two books are so different, and second because I didn’t even know The Goldfinch was about to be published until I read a review in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad (yes, I live in a bubble sometimes—can’t help it).

I’m glad I didn’t take that (in my opinion unnecessarily harsh, two-star) review to heart and dove into The Goldfinch with an open mind, because it was subsequently blown away.

The Goldfinch, as told by the narrator and hero of the story, Theo Decker, follows his times and trials after he tragically loses his mother at a bomb blast at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art at the age of 13.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Sheltering from the rain, Theo’s beloved mother (his father walked out on them and they have no clue as to his whereabouts) takes him to an exhibition featuring ‘The Goldfinch’—the first painting his mother “ever really loved.” During that visit Theo becomes infatuated with a red-haired girl, who’s there making the rounds with an old man. After a brilliant scene describing the mayhem and aftermath of the bombing, Theo ends up walking out of the museum with that very unique and priceless painting and a ring given to him by the old man, who was fatally injured by the blast.

The ring and the painting propel Theo into a life ‘After the bomb’ and into the—to him—caring, comforting world of antiques restorer James Hobart (or ‘Hobie’), the former business partner of the old man. This world offers him a refuge from the aloofness of the wealthy Park Avenue family he ends up living with, the pain of losing his mother, and the looming threat of having to live with his grandparents from his father’s side, whom have never taken an interest in him. Theo’s infatuation with the red-haired girl, who is also in Hobie’s care, continues and they bond over having shared, and survived, the experience of the bombing.

Even though Donna Tartt has so exquisitely woven profound themes into this novel, together with a good dose of narrative suspense, and has created not characters, but people—so real that they seem to have had lives before and after they were drawn into the story—it’s the friendship between Theo and his Ukrainian friend, Boris, that steals the show.

Theo meets Boris when his father shows up out of the blue and drags him away to the sandblasted, desolate suburbs of Las Vegas, which are marred by foreclosures. Spurred by the boredom of living in the ‘burbs and the absence of caring parents, Theo and Boris form a strong bond the way only teenagers can. They take care of each other, sharing everything—from a bed, to food, and copious amounts of drugs—and never really take notice of that fact until they are forced to say their goodbyes in a scene that ends with my favorite sentence out of the whole book:

“More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough, without me saying it out loud to him in the street – which was, of course, I love you.”

You can throw a lot of words at The Goldfinch—Dickensian, apocalyptic, cartoon-like, and I’ve even read a review that called the book ‘a turkey’—but the only word that comes to my mind is ‘masterpiece.’ Because The Goldfinch is nothing short of that; as precious and unique as a lifelong friendship, and the painting itself.

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