Beauty wedded to meaning – “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

December 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm 6 comments

The Goldfinch (1654), showing Fabritius' use o...

The Goldfinch (1654), showing Fabritius’ use of cool colour harmonies, delicate lighting effects, and a light background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, Published in 2013

I am awestruck by this novel. It is harsh and tough to read in parts but so amazingly beautiful.  It is long (700+ pages) but worth every page. And the last twenty pages are written so poignantly – I promise it is worth the investment.  I have been wondering how I should talk about this book, because I try hard on this blog not to have spoilers. But I  have read reviews on this book and it seems that they all share the same facts so I don’t think I am giving anything away.

Theo, at thirteen, lives with his beautiful mother in New York. His father, an abusive drunk, left them months before with no forwarding information or money to survive.  On an ordinary day in May, Theo and his mother are on the way to meet with the principal of his school – he has made some missteps and is being suspended – when his mother decides they will stop on the way to the art museum to view a painting she has always loved, Carel Fabritius‘ “The Goldfinch.”  And it is then that ordinary day that becomes a “rusty nail on the calendar.” The museum is bombed and Theo finds himself lying in the rumble next to an elderly gentleman who gives him an address, a ring and points to “The Goldfinch” as though he would like Theo to take it. And he does. Theo, dizzy with a concussion and ears ringing, helplessly watches the old man die and then walks out a back door of the museum with the painting.  What follows is an agonizing couple of days waiting for his mother to come home. Of course she never does.

He then is temporarily placed with the Barbour family, the affluent friends of his parents.   While there he finds the address he was given by the elderly gentleman and meets Hobie, who restores antique furniture.  He also meets Pippa, who had caught his eye in the museum before the explosion. She too has suffered greatly from the explosion and Theo finds their connection gives him the first peace he has known since he lost his mother.  Only then his father makes an odd and untimely appearance – taking him back to his McMansion in Las Vegas in a suburb of vacant houses.  Theo’s father is as troubled as he always was but now has made a living (or maybe not) as  professional gambler.  His girlfriend is a bar manager hopped up on cocaine.  Theo finds himself alone.  Until he meets a boy named Boris, who has lived all over the world and is equally alone.  They become fast friends and he becomes one of the few constants in Theo’s life, apart from the painting.  And Theo’s life continually changes but always with the painting in tow or close.  It is, in a way, the thing that moors him to his mother, to his loss, to his sanity.   It defines him but it also weighs him down, he, like the goldfinch in the painting, is chained to his decision on that fateful day in the museum.

I will not rehash more of the storyline, there is a lot to rehash.  And I would hate to give away too much. But Tartt has an understanding of youth and art, the relationship between beauty and loss, that is stunning.  She is able to grasp that thing that makes us so needful of beauty and explain it to the reader – “images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find.” Perhaps more importantly Tartt understands that the objects we love or even hate but hold onto have meaning often because of something else.  And that we do not love objects merely because they are beautiful.

“The pursuit of beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something meaningful.” 

We hold onto things, we hold onto memories, even painful ones, because leaving them behind means we will lose the beauty of our past or even our present.  Sometimes we hold onto objects because we have nothing else and life keeps moving us on to the next thing when all we want is to stay.  Tartt wants us to understand that life is tough, it throws everything at you. It is painful and anyone who tells you differently is lying to you and themselves.  But beauty and love, they are what make us get up each day and face the music.

“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 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.  And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” 

Other reviews to check: 


Entry filed under: December 2013 reads. Tags: , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Julie Christine  |  December 16, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Lovely review. I’m waiting my turn at the library for this. Looking forward to it even more!

    • 2. Emily C  |  December 27, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Thank you! I hope you enjoy it.

  • 3. themisanthropologist  |  May 8, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I’m reading this now, but for some reason, I can’t get really into it…

    • 4. Emily C  |  May 8, 2014 at 10:28 pm

      I think it takes a bit. I think it is worth it to keep trying.

  • 5. Anonymous  |  May 29, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I just started reading this, thanks to your review. It is amazing. And I have had no trouble getting into it!

    • 6. Emily C  |  June 1, 2014 at 10:36 pm

      Oh wonderful!!! I hope you love it. Thank you for letting me know and for reading my review.


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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