Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I've been a loyal admirer of Donna Tartt since I read her debut novel, The Secret History. I love that she is a Mississippian, a smoker and drinker, a stylish woman, a recluse who writes her books in longhand.

When I finished The Goldfinch, I lay back and thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had read The Great Gatsby both in high school and again in college, but only when I read it in my late 40s as part of a book group did I really see it clearly and objectively. I absolutely revelled in the elegance of Fitzgerald's style, reading and re-reading passages, silently and aloud, just marvelling at his choice of words. I also sat back and recognised that the plot is deeply flawed.

I wouldn't say that the plot of The Goldfinch is so flawed (critics were divided on this point -- it triggered a love-hate response amongst reviewers), but it didn't hold my attention as tenaciously as The Secret History. At 775 pages, give or take, there's a lot to love or hate, let's put it that way.

13 year-old Theo Decker is in trouble, and before his mother goes with him to school for a parent-teacher conference, they duck together into the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. As his mother stands immersed in "The Goldfinch," a miniature masterpiece by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, Theo watches a girl of his own age with an older man, presumably her grandfather. This passage gorgeously illustrates Tartt's gift for inner monologue.  She also captures the relentless people-watching proclivities of writers, painters, photographers and Theo.
The grandfather had drifted away, a few paintings over; but she was loitering a few steps behind, the girl, and kept casting glances back at my mother and me. Beautiful skin: milky white, arms like carved marble. Definitely she looked athletic, though too pale to be a tennis player; maybe she was a ballerina or a gymnast or even a high diver, practicing late in shadowy indoor pools, echoes and refractions, dark tile. Plunging with arched chest and pointed toes to the bottom of the pool, a silent pow, shiny black swimsuit, bubbles foaming and streaming off her small, tense frame. Why did I obsess over people like this? Was it normal to fixate on strangers in this particular vivid, fevered way? I didn't think so. It was impossible to imagine some random passer-by on the street forming quite such an interest in me. And yet it was the main reason I'd gone in those houses with Tom: I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats. Often I saw interesting-looking people on the street and thought about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up stories about them on the subway or the crosstown bus. Years had passed, and I still hadn't stopped thinking about the dark-haired children in Catholic school uniforms -- brother and sister -- I'd seen in Grand Central, literally trying to pull their father out the door of a seedy bar by the sleeves of his suit jacket. Nor had I forgotten the frail, gypsyish girl in a wheelchair out in front of the Carlyle Hotel, talking breathlessly in Italian to the fluffy dog in her lap, while a sharp character in sunglasses (father? bodyguard?) stood behind her chair, apparently conducting some sort of business deal on his phone. For years, I'd turned those strangers over in my mind, wondering who they were and what their lives were like, and I knew I would go home and wonder about this girl and her grandfather the same way. The old man had money; you could tell from how he was dressed. Why was it just the two of them? Where were they from? Maybe they were part of some big old complicated New York family -- music people, academics, one of those artsy West Side families that you saw up around Columbia or at Lincoln Center matinees. Or, maybe -- homely, civilized old creature that he was -- maybe he wasn't her grandfather at all. Maybe he was a music teacher, and she was the flute prodigy he had discovered in some small town and brought to play at Carnegie Hall. "Theo?" my mother said...
After his mother is killed in a mysterious explosion in the museum (a bomb? we're never sure), Theo turns up at the Park Avenue apartment of his friend Andy Barbour. Of all the literary portrayals of the rich, beautiful and utterly dysfunctional of upper-crust New York, this one ranks up there with Edith Wharton.
There -- by the baby grand, and a flower arrangement the size of a packing case -- stood Mrs. Barbour in a floor-sweeping housecoat, pouring coffee into cups on a silver tray. As she turned to greet us, I could feel the social workers taking in the apartment, and her. Mrs. Barbour was from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty -- a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room. Like a fashion drawing come to life, she turned heads wherever she went, gliding along obliviously without appearing to notice the turbulence she created in her wake; her eyes were spaced far apart, her ears were small, high-set, and very close to her head, and her body was long-waisted and thin, like an elegant weasel's. (Andy had these features as well, but in ungainly proportions, without her slinky ermine grace.) 
In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo also manages to connect with the elderly owner of an antique shop, Hobie, whose former partner, Welty, had been killed in the museum as he wandered through the gallery with the young girl. Besides being a brilliant portrait of Mrs. DeFrees, I love this passage for what it says about Welty and his skill. The important thing was finding the right object for each customer -- ironic when you consider what Theo gets up to when he takes over the shop, and also when you consider the role of the miniature, "The Goldfinch," in his own emotional life.
"It's so fitting if you knew Welty," said Hobie's great friend Mrs. DeFrees, a dealer in nineteenth-century watercolors who for all her stiff clothes and strong perfumes was a hugger and a cuddler, with the old-ladyish habit of liking to hold your arm or pat your hand as she talked. "Because, my dear, Welty was an agoramaniac. Loved people, you know, loved the marketplace. The to and the fro of it. Deals, goods, conversation, exchange. It was that eeny bit of Cairo from his boyhood, I always said he would have been perfectly happy padding around in slippers and showing carpets in the souk. He had the antiquaire's gift, you know -- he knew what belonged with whom. Someone would come in the shop never intending to buy a thing, ducking in out of the rain maybe, and he'd offer them a cup of tea and they'd end up having a dining room table shipped to Des Moines. Or a student would wander in to admire, and he'd bring out just the little inexpensive print. Everyone was happy, do you know. He knew everybody wasn't in the position to come in and buy some big important piece -- it was all about matchmaking, finding the right home."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the adult Theo does a fair amount of self-medication. As someone who has limited tolerance for time spent in NYC society, I feel his pain.
Only one or two pills a week, to get me through the very worst of the socializing, and only when I really really needed them. In lieu of the pharms I'd been drinking too much and that really wasn't working for me; with opiates I was relaxed, I was tolerant, I was up for anything, I could stand pleasantly for hours in unbearable situations listening to any old tiresome or ridiculous bullshit without wanting to go outside and shoot myself in the head.
My dear and astute friend Rose once said that she wanted to live a life with a narrative, or something to that effect. Don't we all? I thought but then realised that many of us couldn't care less. It all comes down, I suppose, to what the narrative turns out to be. And what happens when you realise that the narrative has turned out to be untrue? Can you stop yourself unravelling?
How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person, on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had. The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart.
If her publication frequency to date -- a novel a decade -- holds true, I've got another eight years or so to go back and read Ms. Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend before her next one appears. Two things to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Loving your assessment of the book and Theo's observations of people.


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