...I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.
I purchased The Goldfinch almost a year ago. I kept seeing it everywhere — in bookstores, on the bestseller list, in book reviews, in passing snapshots on Instagram. I one-clicked it knowing I didn't really have time for a sweeping narrative. It didn't really matter. The book was on sale and I knew I would read it eventually.
I read it last week.
I started slow. Donna Tartt's writing has been noted as Dickensonian, and I could see the parallels early in the book. Tartt begins with Theo, the main character and narrator, hallucinating after a particularly rough patch in Amsterdam. He sees his mother, and immediately grows nostalgic. The scene is set, and we're taken back to when he is 13 and worried about discipline waiting for him at school.
But in that beginning section? Sentences stretched for almost an entire page. I'm all for grand syntax—Nathaniel Hawthorne comes to mind—but I wasn't entirely sold.
Until the terrorist attack where his mother died and he acquired the painting.
There were at least a dozen people on the floor—not all of them intact. They had the appearance of having been dropped from a great height. Three or four of the bodies were partially covered with fireman's coats, feet sticking out. Others sprawled glaringly in the open, amidst explosive stains. The splashes and burns carried a violence, like big blood sneezes, an hysterical sense of movement in the stillness.
Something shifted within this scene for me—maybe because it wasn't written in the voice of a drug-induced surrealism. The description came alive and never really stopped throughout the novel. The characters weren't flat, and even if I didn't necessarily feel an emotional connection to them, I could see them living and breathing in my head while reading.
Especially Boris. But I liked him, dreg that he is.
As I got into the story, I realized what it was that struck me about Tartt's writing style—what worked for me and what I knew I would be taking away from her words.
She captures the magic of ordinary human moments.
More than any other book I've read before, this one nails the marking of time when your life is altered—the this time last week I was here or she was doing this or ast time I opened this we were talking face-to-face. The study of your surroundings, the honing in on the worn detail of your shoe rather than paying attention to one more person asking how you are doing.
You know. The things we think about when our life has taken the sharp left of change.
And that's not all. Theo, in a way, is an anti-hero. Very early we realize there's not much redeemable about this kid. The death of his mother and subsequently the painting coming into his possession serve as catalysts that push him forward. It's not until the last 20 or so pages that he really begins waking up and living — and by then, he's an adult.
But this is life.
The Goldfinch wasn't a pretty book. Sure. There were some incredible moments when Theo speaks of the perils of beauty unattached—those obsessions we get under our skin that don't really hold any weight. Those are the most dangerous, he believes, because there's nothing to them. No substance. But for the other 700 or so pages, it's situation after situation where he's just living. Just getting by—just scraping one more pill into his mouth and figuring out how to make it to his next conversation with Pippa, his own version of a manic-pixie-dream-girl who happened to be in the museum and one of the only other survivors of the attack.
I loved this.
Grief changes you. Brush up against it and you won't come away unscathed. And to experience such repeated loss, and to have the closest relationships be tainted with abuse, addiction and co-dependency, I would expect nothing less than how Theo reacted in any given moment.
He was relentlessly human, and Tartt wrote him with scathing grace. Because there is grace —even for those who've experienced the darkest of humanity. Ultimately, this is the choice Theo faces: risk everything and pursue the beauty that matters, or go by the minute for the thrill of the next high.
His choice, to me, made perfect sense.