The Goldfinch: What Does It Mean to Keep a Secret?

This book is too complicated for me to convey to you in any sort of detail or even coherently.  I will not be spoiling the overall plot of the book in this review.  I will say that it is about art, specifically a painting called “The Goldfinch” (1654) by Carel Fabritius.  It is about secrets.  It is about boyhood.  And it is about Theo Decker.

It is The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt and the 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

the goldfinch cover

I am a Tartt fan, so reading this book was a way for me to pay homage to her talent.  Although the content of the book often strayed from what I consider to be uplifting, enlightening, or engaging, I still couldn’t put it down, and I could see the beauty of her writing in the grittiest of passages.  To my sensitive friends, I warn you that this book has a lot of swearing, and much of the narrative is taken with the antics of boys caught in drugs, lies, and truancy.  This was my least favorite section of the book, but it led into the book’s final passages and that made those parts worthwhile. They made sense to me when I realized the connection they had to the larger plot.

As I said, the book is about a boy named Theo Decker.  The gist of it, which will become apparent in the first few chapters, is that Theo’s single mother takes him to an art museum in New York City, where they live. While there, a bomb explodes.  Theo’s mother dies, but he takes a ring from an old man who is injured near him.  He had been following the old man because of his cute, young redheaded granddaughter.  Theo also leaves the museum with the painting “The Goldfinch.”  He does it without thinking, really, in an effort to protect and save  it.  It was his mother’s favorite, so he leaves the museum with it, unnoticed in the chaos.

He figures out where the old man had lived, and returns the ring to the man’s business partner, another old man named Hobie.  Theo and Hobie develop a friendship, and when Theo grows up, Hobie plays a large part in his life.  Theo also gets to know Pippa, the redheaded girl, better through this connection.

After the bombing and his mother’s death, Theo lives with a schoolmate whose parents are rich. However, his gambling alcoholic father and his father’s trashy girlfriend Xandra show up to claim Theo, so he’s forced to leave New York City and live in Las Vegas with them. There he is unsupervised, uncared for, and lonely.  He hangs out with a Russian kid named Boris who is also often alone.  (This is the section of the book with most of the drug and alcohol use.)  Theo keeps the painting hidden in a pillowcase behind his headboard.  Through all of his adventures, he is always concerned with the stolen painting.

Eventually, his father, a scumbag who tries to steal Theo’s education money put aside by his mother, dies.  Theo returns to New York, painting in tow, and reconnects with Hobie and the family he lived with earlier.  From there, more crazy adventures ensue. That’s all I will say about the plot, but rest assured, those are the bare bones.  There’s much much more happening.

While the book is about many things, one of the most prominent themes is that of keeping a secret.  Through Theo’s consciousness, we learn just how horrible it can be to carry a secret alone and to know that revealing that secret, no matter how innocently it started, will end up with big trouble, fines, and prison.  Theo wants to return the painting, for he took it only to preserve and protect it in the first place, but he is stuck trying to figure out how to do so.

This passage particularly captures this paranoid frame of mind that characterizes Theo’s predicament:

“[T]his only made me long even more to have the painting close to hand, to look at whenever I wanted.  Though I knew it was impossible, still I thought of it.  Everywhere I looked . . . I saw potential hiding places: high cupboards, fake fireplaces, wide rafters that could only be reached by very tall ladder, floorboards that might easily be prised up.  At night I lay staring into the dark, fantasizing about a specially built fireproof cabinet where I could lock it away in safety or—even more absurdly—a secret, climate-controlled Bluebeard closet, combination lock only.

“Mine, mine. Fear, idolatry, hoarding.  The delight and terror of the fetishist.  Fully conscious of my folly, I’d downloaded pictures of it to my computer and my phone so I could gloat upon the image in private, brushstrokes rendered digitally, a scrap of seventeenth-century sunlight compressed into dots and pixels, but the purer the color, the richer the sense of impasto, the more I hungered for the thing itself, the irreplaceable, glorious, light-rinsed object.

“. . . What if I died? Got hit by a bus? Might the ungainly package be mistaken for garbage and tossed in the incinerator?” (p. 520)

We see how alone he is in carrying the secret and how obsessed he has become over the painting.  The entire book explores this somewhat philosophical question of what does it mean to keep a secret and how does one survive such a secret?

There is a twist, which makes all 771 pages worth the suspense. The last several pages wax long on ethics and the meaning of good and evil.  I found some of the best quotes in these final musings of Theo’s, but the most gripping part of the story comes before the closing musings of the book.

Here are some of those thought-provoking quotes.  Some of them are from a conversation Theo has with Boris, some are from a conversation with Hobie, and others are Theo’s musings in the aftermath of his decade-long drama.

“[T]he world is much stranger than we know or can say.  And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to—?  Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here?  Maybe not quite so simple” (p. 744).

“What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?” (p. 745-746).

“Idolatry!  Caring too much for objects can destroy you.  Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it?  And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” (p. 757).

“Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be yourself.’ Follow your heart.  Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me.  What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held [sic] common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” (p. 761).

“It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand.  That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out” (emphasis in original, p. 761).

“And, increasingly, I find myself fixing on that refusal to pull back.  Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winning they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat.  Because here’s the truth: life is catastrophe” (p. 767).

Lastly, here’s a quote from Francois de la Rochefoucauld that Tartt placed at the beginning of section three.  “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves” (p. 371).

I really liked this book, although parts of it disturbed me.  I was gripped by the narrative throughout without quite being able to put my finger on why.  It could have been Tartt’s excellent gift for writing, Theo’s voice, or the craziness of the situation.  I enjoyed the read and I see exactly how this won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I know some people don’t agree with me on this.

Now, why was Theo so compelling?  He was a common boy, who becomes an orphan, and who isn’t all that ambitious or smart.  Yet he’s down on his luck and liable to mess up.  He’s tangibly human in a fascinating way, despite the seemingly lack of specialness.  He filled that role of “Everyman” for me, despite the fact that he’s male and I’m female. I rooted for him.  I did.  I despised him at times, but I kept rooting.

Tartt’s other books are The Secret History (1992) and The Little Friend (2002).