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Review: The Goldfinch

Coming-of-age story connects art, loss and yearning

Photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

November 14, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Donna Tartt’s latest novel is an homage to history — the history of memories and the quiet longing for beauty and love they can evoke. After an explosion shakes the foundation of 13-year-old Theo Decker’s life, he speaks of the aftermath with a voice that makes the opening of The Goldfinch powerful. It will not be long before you ask, “Where did the time go?” because you’ll be reading it so quickly.

Tartt took a long break between novels, so her return is highly anticipated in literary circles. She gained cult following in 1992 with her debut novel, The Secret History, which was followed up by The Little Friend in 2002. Much like The Secret History deals with themes of the arts and finding yourself in reckless abandon, The Goldfinch centers around art and its power to both corrupt and heal.

Mississippi’s rebel writer

Get to know The Goldfinch author in five facts

Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch, was released Oct. 22. Before picking up the lengthy novel, learn a little about the writer behind the words.

1. Tartt is no newcomer to the literary scene. The Mississippi Review published her first sonnet when she was 13.

2. Tartt’s shortest novel comes in at 576 pages.

3. A New York Times article described Tartt as a cross between Anna Wintour and Oscar Wilde because of her trademark bobbed haircut and serious demeanor in photos.

4. Writing scenes for The Goldfinch started as early as 1993, when the author lived in Amsterdam.

5. While attending college at Ole Miss, Tartt stuffed her sorority’s “Sunshine Box” with sayings from Nietzsche like “God is dead ... And we have killed him” rather than compliments.

Brush with greatness

“The Goldfinch” painter inspires an author

Artist Carel Fabritius truly went out with a bang in 1654, but not before he created a masterpiece that inspired Donna Tartt’s latest novel.

Fabritius was one of Rembrandt’s most promising students, and his skill as a painter is apparent despite his 12 to 15 surviving works. Over the course of his short life, Fabritius served as a teacher for artists such as Vermeer, and he is seen as a stylistic link between Rembrandt and Vermeer. On Oct. 22 of this year, coincidentally the same day Donna Tartt’s novel was released, “The Goldfinch” and other works from these Dutch masters went on display at The Frick Collection in New York.

“The Goldfinch” is only about 13-by-8-inches. Its subject, a small pet goldfinch, sits chained to a perch. Fabritius employs a technique called “trompe l’oeil,” in which the painter tricks the eye into seeing a three-dimensional subject — when “The Goldfinch” hangs on a wall, the bird appears real. The “trompe l’oeil” hinges completely on an inability to detect paint and brushstrokes. This illusion is meticulously set up and then destroyed by very deliberate paint application to the goldfinch’s body. In his work, Fabritius focused on realism and played with optical illusions.

The artist was tragically killed when a gunpowder storage building exploded in 1654. He was 32. The blast, known as the Delft Thunderclap, killed him, destroyed much of his work and leveled a quarter of Delft, Netherlands.

--Hannah Reese

Tartt draws inspiration from the tragic death of Carel Fabritius, the Dutch painter who created the title painting, and opens the novel with a shocking explosion that leaves many wounded or dead. Among those killed is Theo Decker’s mother, a woman who taught her son to appreciate all things beautiful despite the family’s poor economic standing.

From the beginning, the novel sets itself up as a bildungsroman in line with coming-of-age stories such as Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. Decker must fight against the current of his feelings of loss and a world of adults who are bent on making the important decisions for him. With no family members to take him in, Decker drifts into the lives of the Barbours. There, his isolation is thrown into sharp relief. Where his own mother was warm and colorful, the prim and fancy Mrs. Barbour neglects even her own children. This contrast makes his grief almost overwhelming.

His only anchors to the past are a ring and a painting left to him by an unknown man who died in the explosion. The mystery surrounding these objects and their significance take Decker into the murky depths of the house of James “Hobie” Hobart, an antiques dealer who also restores art and furniture. As intriguing as this adventure could be, the story hits some snags. Although her language is beautiful, the pacing is thrown by Tartt’s inclusion of too many details, which sometimes bogs down the narrative’s flow. The novel’s 771 pages is superfluous; some parts seem as dull as the furniture Hobart restores, and the text loses its luster. But the pace picks up again with an injection of drama and intrigue once Decker’s deadbeat, alcoholic father waltzes back into his life with his girlfriend Xandra (with an X, not Sandra, she hates that).

Fans of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander will enjoy The Goldfinch. Both of these novels explore the relationship between a mother and her child in a dark and often unfamiliar context. Similarly, Decker’s quest to adulthood involves foraying into the mysterious underworld of artists and their patrons.

Tartt’s followers will appreciate her return to literature after a 10-year hiatus, but those new to her work are better served starting with The Secret History. Her efforts at creating vivid descriptions and highlighting even the smallest detail cause her to trip over her own words at points in the narrative. However, for those well-versed in Tartt and her heavier style, she proves that patience and perseverance can be justly rewarded.

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