THE GOLDFINCH is why I've gotten so far behind on my reviews over these last few days. I recently joined a book club, you see, and since this is next month's selection, and one of the other members wants to borrow my copy, I've been trying to read it as quickly as possible (priorities: I haz dem).
Now that I've finished, all I can say is: wow.
This 771-page epic chronicles the life of Theo Decker: a boy marked by tragedy at a young age following the death of his mother when they have the misfortune of being in the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the day it gets bombed by a terrorist group. Theo barely escapes with his life--and a Dutch painting by Fabritius, the eponymous "Goldfinch."
As Theo moves from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the painting remains a Dorian Gray-esque specter of guilt and corruption in his life, overshadowing all his conscious and not-so-conscious decisions. He is both attracted and repelled by the painting, coming back to it again and again like a drug, and while he knows he should give it back, he doesn't know how to do so without implicating himself.
The 'goldfinch' has become an albatross around his neck.
There is something almost Dickensian about THE GOLDFINCH: it's there in the way Tartt describes the stratification of the various socioeconomic classes in modern-day New York; it's there in the loss of innocence and the painfully human flaws every character, both good and bad, is imbued with. THE GOLDFINCH is like a mishmash of DAVID COPPERFIELD and GREAT EXPECTATIONS mired in Tolstoyan tragedy. (Also, the body count in this book rivals that of a Steinbeck novel: a word of warning--don't get attached, or it'll be Bambi's mother all over again.)
Because here's the thing--all these new adult romances may be fun to read, but they subscribe to a fantasy world mode of thinking: a world where irresponsible behaviors have no real, life-shattering consequences; a world where mental illness is trivialized as upper-middle-class ennui and curable by that most damnable of panaceas--love; a world that is shallow and superficial, a flattering funhouse mirror that shows us not as we are, but as we'd like to be--and with shoddy writing, to boot.
That is why books by Dickens, Tolstoy, James, and yes, I think even Tartt, remain in the public eye long after these more passe forms of entertainment have worn out their welcome on the NYT-best-sellers list. Like a painting by a Master, they are as beautifully wrought as they are existential, and serve as a window, a portal: a glimpse into what it means to be human. Sometimes this glimpse is terrifying, other times, it can break your heart, but it is tempered with beauty and the whispered assurance that for as long as humanity has been and continues to be, we are not alone.