Friday, May 2, 2014

Friday Reads: Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch"

As I've been reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize, I cannot help but think about preservation in the face of decay. Certainly the theme is there in this coming-of-age tale of 13-year-old Theodore Decker, whose world is (literally) blown to pieces when a bomb explodes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo crawls out of the museum rubble, carrying a priceless painting of Carel Fabritius' "The Goldfinch," and the novel takes off from there. Theo, still dealing with the psychological and physical aftershocks, is moved from world to world—from Park Avenue high society, to West Village antique shops, to the desolate & foreclosed subdivisions outside Las Vegas.

Fabritius' "The Goldfinch" (1654)
There are many instances of the idea of preservation in each of these scenes, but none more apparent than a 13-year-old trying to preserve an idea of youth when the idea was blasted out of his senses. Theo lives in aftershock; and the painting, hidden inside clean paper inside a pillowcase, takes on a metaphorical quality of the purity that, as Theo grows older, he desperately tries to cling to.

What Donna Tartt does so remarkably well is to get into the mind of a 13-year-old boy trying to make good decisions with the kind of dumb logic that makes for mistakes instead. I haven't been in that mindset in (*ahem!*) years, and it was so well-rendered that I found myself protesting out loud at the decisions Theo makes: from the perspective of an adult, and easy thing to do. What that means is commitment—to become invested in the character's well-being even after he has made too many mistakes.

Ultimately, this story is for mothers of sons. It is a study of adolescence blown into adulthood (which seems to touch on an 21st-century American angst) with a character rendered so sympathetically, the desire to carry and guide will be strong in the reader. Which is a metaphysical kind of preservation: while we watch Theo's world decay, we struggle ourselves to help the character stay preserved, unsullied, and (in this world) impossibly innocent.

~ James, May 2014

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