The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: A Book Review
Spoiler alert listed below
This Substack is called Vinay Prasad’s Observations and Thoughts, and, though my attention typically centers on medical topics, today’s post will be under the broader theme of my interests—a book review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (spoiler alert denoted below).
People close to me will not be surprised to see a book review in these pages. Since I was 10 years old, I have been in love with literature. I read compulsively, obsessively—staying awake till 4 in the morning to finish a novel with school looming the next day, or reading for 14 or 16 hours non-stop on a rainy weekend day or from lift off to touch down on an international flight, till my eyes were bleary. Donna Tartt’s writing takes me back to my adolescence—being so enamored by a book that it is all consuming. Under that spell, the pleasure of reading surpasses anything else I could be doing. Well, almost anything.
A few months ago, I read Tartt’s first book The Secret History, and found her to be delightful and lyrical. That novel--- written in her mid twenties—centers on two crimes committed by a group of Classics students at a small liberal arts school in the northeast. The writing is dazzling. The plot rockets forward.
Two decades later, Tartt would write the Goldfinch. I have long believed that in contrast with scientists—who are often most creative and inventive in their 20s and 30s—great fiction writers are at the peak of their craft in their 50s and 60s. No one exemplifies this more than Philip Roth, whose books of the 1990s-2000s remain one of the most illuminative portraits of life in twenty century America. To me, The Human Stain is his crowning achievement.
The Goldfinch is a lengthy book—over 750 pages—but when the weight shifted in my hands, and there were just 200 pages between me and the end, I felt sad. I started to read more slowly. I wanted to make it last, knowing that it would be some time before I find another book as splendid, dazzling and sublime.
The book is a work of art; a tightly wound story that tackles the eternal themes of life: Love—with careful consideration of its most beautiful and cruelest form: unrequited love; Fathers and sons—how we are shaped in their image even if we do not think or wish so; The death of a parent. Morality and fate—do good things only come from good actions? Or can good come from bad?—Meaning—what is the purpose of life and art in an ephemeral world; Friendships over a lifetime—how we come to love our friends.
Tartt takes on these themes with a plot set in motion with a bomb blast and a borrowed painting. Her story is intricate, spanning decades in time, geography, a half dozen or more key characters, and yet, it seems so perfect—finishing the book is like snapping the final piece of the puzzle in place.
*spoiler alert, in what follows*
For a moment, I found her choice of the painting itself, Fabritius’ Goldfinch, a cliché. Of course, it had to be a painting by a painter killed in a bomb blast to be borrowed in a bomb blast. And I don’t use the world stolen because no one who reads the book can believe that is what he did. But I granted her that illusion, and then, as I finished the book, I realized it could have been no other painting or painter. In many ways, the painting has its own destiny.
Theo’s relationship to his father is portrayed mercilessly. His father is a drunk, a drug addict, a man who would risk the fortunes of his own son to further his addiction, and Theo hates that. Then we watch Theo grow up to become a drunk, a drug addict, a man whose forgeries risk the fortunes of Hobie, whom he loves as a father.
Theo is his father’s son. He inherits the easy with which some men lie—and deceive—how deception becomes a pastime in and of itself—apart from instrumental ends. As Xandra prophecized, Theo is more like his father than he would admit.
Theo starts the book noting how different his life would have been if not for the death of his mother. This is the eternal question for any child who lost his parent at a young age. Then on page 723, Tartt describes Theo’s dreams of his mother. Even in his dreams, he cannot touch her. She is always out of grasp. Until the very moment he needed her guidance most. For those of us who have lost someone close, Tartt captures this painful experience of not being to touch them even in your dreams.
Unrequited love—who hasn’t felt its pain? When he cannot be with Pippa, Theo plays her favorite Arvo Part, and reads novels she had read to gain access to her thoughts— haven’t we all done that?
As is often the case, the object of our desires is someone we don’t truly understand. Not until the final section does Theo recognize Pippa’s parallel addiction. Can two people be so similar they aren’t compatible? Their weaknesses feed off each other. Pippa is smart enough to recognize this risk, does he accept her final answer? The reader is left to wonder, perhaps root for them in spite of it all.
Kitsey, the perfect woman. She embodies making the “right” choices in life—the perfect pairing for Theo and she is correct that, in most ways, life with her will be predictable and good. And yet, the reader feels the spark is missing. We aren’t left wondering what she thought about his absence over Christmas. We have little sympathy towards her plight— being jilted at your engagement party.
Yet, most of our own lives are propelled by a series of choices that resemble Kitsey herself—predictable choices, what our parents or sister wants for us. Tartt leaves us in final limbo on this question, and we can only wonder what Theo will choose.
[On a side note: I have long believed that a great sin in medicine is that path to become a doctor inherently selects for people who make the Kitsey choice every day of their lives, and these folks struggle to understand the many people in the world who would rather be alone, pinning after Pippa. This spills over into all their behavior— including risking challenging accepted dogma or generally being risk taking and courageous.]
The painting, the Goldfinch, becomes a metaphor for the trajectory of all our lives. It bounces around all over the world, chained to whomever holds it. Then, in its final act, it serves a purpose larger than itself. It releases several paintings long lost. Did Welty envision this journey when he asked Theo to take it? Did the goldfinch finally break free of the chain that tied it to its nest? Did Theo get precisely what he wanted? And, more: will the painting one day survive a third bomb blast— the haunting conclusion to the closing paragraph…
“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers and the next.”
That is also what I think Tartt’s answer is to the Big— capital B- question. And perhaps the best answer for the meaning of life without God. For the artist— the answer is to create something so beautiful, so transcendent— that people want to pass it along forever, a form of immortality. For the scientist— it is to make a discovery that lasts forever— or changes the arc of humanity. At least, the artist or scientist has to believe this, lest they be sucked in the vortex that leads one to take a mixture of booze and benodiazepines in a hotel in Amsterdam. In Tartt’s particilar case, I think she has succeeded—the book itself is literally her Goldfinch. [As a philosopher, writer and doctor, this is not exactly my answer to the Big question, but I will save that for a longer form]
And, then there are the quotes I flagged, dog-earing the book 50 times, and writing furiously in the margins, let me leave you with a few. Here, what art means to us:
And then this, the very best, on Good and evil. Having witnessed so much in my personal life, and even more in the 18 years I have been in medicine, I know Boris is right.
In our modern world, I cannot help feel pity towards the children (not all of them are young) who constantly try to split the world into black and white, and cancel the ‘bad people.’ They are ignorant to most of the human experience. They have never had to make hard choices where there is no good answer, and not answering is not possible. They have never had to do bad things in order to do great ones. Nor do they recognize that actions they view as virtuous result in tremendous harm. Part of maturity is to learn that “the world is much stranger than we know or can say.”
The Goldfinch was a gorgeous, sumptuous book, displacing my prior favorites Sometimes a Great Notion and El Amor en Los Tiempos Del Colera. The only consolation in finishing the book in 2023 is knowing that it has been 10 years since Tartt’s last book. The next one may arrive any day now. I will be waiting.
PS Donna Tartt if you read this, and are in SF, please drop me a line.