On Wanting The Goldfinch: Donna Tartt’s Book of Cravings

Shortly after finishing Donna Tartt’s masterpiece, I stepped into a bookstore eager to buy another book but immediately spotted The Goldfinch on a table. All sorts of novels lay around it, but I thought, petulantly—No! Only The Goldfinch! The book had made me hungry to keep reading, but I wasn’t ready to leave its story behind.

goldfinchSince it appeared last fall, efforts to find comparisons for Tartt’s singular Pulitzer-winning thriller have driven in fast as the novel’s own quick plot. Some have suggested Bleak House as a corollary, but to me, the Dickens novel that The Goldfinch most resembles is Great Expectations. Pip’s struggles reappear in Tartt’s portrayal of a child caught up in adult trouble, in the guilt—good grief, the guilt—and nostalgia of Theo’s first-person narration. Indeed, Tartt’s utterly antiquarian book is driven by a madness for the past and its relics that is as much Walter Scott as Dickens. Though the breadth, suspense, and barrels of characters in The Goldfinch all bespeak a nineteenth-century serial, in the end Tartt’s protagonist Theo Decker reminded me above all of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. In their books about paintings both Tartt and Wilde scrutinize the dreadful beholden-ness of the soul to its secret objects, the mortal exchange between those objects and oneself, and the hubris of caring too much about a thing.

As much as the initial disaster in The Goldfinch marks it as a pointedly post-9/11 story about New York, the novel is also portrait of a culture coming to terms with the souls it’s lost to the love of wealth, its collective Jamesian marriage for money. As Welty’s ring and the painting drive Theo through streets and among airports, the novel careens through its fascination with the value of expensive things and the passion to possess and be possessed—by objects, artworks, furniture, but also every little pill that comes one’s way. It’s no mistake that in his final year of journeying Theo is taking back the things he has strewn about, trying to atone by undoing the reckless circulation of objects he’s permitted. As much as The Goldfinch mirrors a city changed by 2001, the novel is also fable of New York post-2008. Like a moral tonic for the subprime age, Tartt’s study of wanting not what you cannot have but what you should not have seems eager to prove that Theo must reign in his desires in order to thrive and be happy.

But it remains an open question, one of the many that flow from Tartt’s sentences, string her short chapters together, and that kept this reader from wanting to stop reading, or from letting the novel close. Tartt’s technique of suspense is present from her virtuosic first sentence: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” Questions blossom forth about this character’s mother and what exactly happened in Amsterdam, but Tartt offers no immediate answers. Instead the novel unfolds its secrets over nearly 800 pages that keep turning almost on their own as the paper book itself becomes another of the story’s own objects of addiction. If I could make any small criticism of the novel, it would be to say that I felt ever so slightly disappointed by the frame Tartt uses to wrap everything up. But really I think I was just let down by the very fact that The Goldfinch ended at all.