I’m half-way through The Goldfinch. It’s an amazing piece of fiction, with a character, Theo Decker, I know I’m not going to forget for a long time. I’ve not read anything else by Donna Tartt, but The Secret History and The Little Friend have just been added to my must-read list.
I would have read The Goldfinch sooner, but I knew over a year ago that my most amazing and wonderful book club would be reading it for our January, 2015 meeting. I need to read any book fairly close to the date of its appointed discussion, for reasons I’d prefer not to recognize. Right now I’m on page 355 of The Goldfinch and book club is in one week. (Thank God I can still read quickly, even if I CRS.)
Keeping me company right now are two divergent ideas about what I’d like to say regarding this wonderful (as-yet, half-read) book. Hence, Parts I and II. If the lovely ladies of my book club change my mind about any aspect of The Goldfinch (as they have been known to do), or if by chance I change my mind by page 771, I reserve the option for a Part III.
Oh, and btw, as they say, neither Donna Tartt nor James Woods have approved this message.
THE GOLDFINCH, PART I
Even before I began reading it I was partial to The Goldfinch because the novel I’m trying to write also has a painting essential to the story. I love the portrait my book is about (you can see it here) and I love that many scenes in my book are inspired by other Van Gogh paintings. But you have to give it to Donna Tartt for finding such an exquisitely beautiful and engaging painting (the bird is tethered to its perch by the most delicate of chains) by an artist, Carel Fabritius, I had not heard of (although I’m certainly no art expert). Fabritius was a Dutchman, like Van Gogh, but Fabritius painted earlier (mid-17th century) than Van Gogh (late-19th century) and in a very different style (that Dutch realism I love so much vs. Van Gogh’s impressionism). I find it a wonderful fluke that both paintings (mine and the other Donna’s, that is!) are quite small: The Goldfinch painting measures about 13 by 9 inches; Van Gogh’s Portrait of a Patient at St.-Paul Hospital is hardly bigger than a piece of looseleaf paper.
THE GOLDFINCH, PART II
Donna Tartt is apparently not particularly forthcoming in interviews but she shared this about Fabritius’s Goldfinch in a 2013 Vogue interview: “It’s very mysterious. There are many theories about why it was painted—all of which are unsatisfactory. There’s nothing like it in the art of that day. It’s just its own little marvel.”
Art’s secret history, its capacity to speak to us powerfully across time, the serendipity and faith involved in creating it—these are the themes that excite Tartt, or so her Vogue interviewer, Megan O’Grady claims. James Woods, of The New Yorker, had a different take:
“Tartt’s consoling message, blared in the book’s final pages, is that what will survive of us is great art, but this seems an anxious compensation, as if Tartt were unconsciously acknowledging that the 2013 ‘Goldfinch’ might not survive the way the 1654 ‘Goldfinch’ has.” Days after she was awarded the Pulitzer, Wood told Vanity Fair, “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”
Last June, the Washington Post featured an article, “No, you do not have to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction.” Apparently James Woods feels you do. What I wanted to say I liked best about The Goldfinch, at least so far, is how intimately it allows us a look into the life of a thirteen year-old Theo Decker. And it saddens me that readers are denigrated for wanting that look.
In a recent catch-all/catch-up chat I had with an old friend, we talked a bit about The Goldfinch. “Do you remember when our kids were in high school,” she asked me, “and their classmate [redacted]’s mother died?” I vaguely did; my child was not close friends with this classmate. It turns out the child’s father decided he didn’t need to modify his work-travel schedule in the face of single parenthood, and the kid was more or less (mostly more) un-parented for the duration of high school.
I am ashamed that did not see this child, this child who suffered (mightily, it seems) under my very nose. I am, in fact, deeply ashamed of this negligence. Adults need to see Theo Deckers. Who else will? While my child might not have been this kid’s best buddy, it shouldn’t have mattered a whit. I was an adult in a community that left this kid to the wolves.
Is this what Mr. Woods calls “infantilization”? That people other than teenagers might be interested in a Theo’s view of the world? In what I’ve read so far, there is little “infantile” about Theo’s childhood, about the life of any child who drinks, uses drugs, skips school, steals and lies–and has no one who cares much that he or she does any of it. And yet all it took was one conversation with a friend to reveal a Theo Decker in our midst. One book. One novel with a very compelling story to tell about a boy whom adults, it seems, forgot.
I’m probably missing the point, “infantile” reader that I am. Maybe the real “infantilization” lies in the book’s ending, which I haven’t gotten to yet but which apparently wraps things up a little too nicely, a little too…fictionally? I guess what I want to know is this: would it really be so awful if Theo were somehow saved by art?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of children in the world–in our neighborhoods, on our blocks, maybe even in our homes–who have no one in their corners. The least we can do for them is tell their stories. Tell their stories, read their stories, talk about their stories and remind them that sometimes there are happy endings. Happy endings they can create for themselves, too, if they care enough about words and paintings. If they believe in the magic of art.