By Chet Yarbrough
By Donna Tartt
Narrated by David Pittu
“The Goldfinch” reminds one of “An American Tragedy”, written by Theodore Dreiser in the 1920s. “The Goldfinch is a modern American’ tragedy. Donna Tartt explores the 21st century through the life of an orphaned boy named Theo Decker.
Clyde Griffiths, the Kansas City boy of Dreiser’s imagination, is attracted to mid-western high society and the American Dream. Theo’s life parallels Dreiser’s main character with exposure to New York’s high society life.
Theo, like Clyde Griffiths, is seduced by the glamour and thrill of big city life and unexplored opportunity. Tartt’s back story is similar to Dreiser’s but attuned to more modern-day beliefs like genetic inheritance, post traumatic stress disorder, and the drug culture.
“The Gold Finch” begins with a bomb blast at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bomb exemplifies 21st century terrorism and PTSD but adds an element of mystery about art theft. Theo is visiting the Museum with his mother, an art degree graduate, recently abandoned by Theo’s alcoholic father. Theo’s mother is killed in the blast.
Theo’s mother chooses to have one more look at a painting, “The Goldfinch”, before leaving the museum. She asks her son to wait for her in the gift shop. As Theo waits for his mother, he sees a young girl with an older person milling around the shop. Theo is one of few survivors of the museum explosion.
When the bomb explodes, the older person is nearing death from the blast. Theo is recovering from the percussive impact when he sees the stranger fading in and out of consciousness. The stranger asks about the young girl but Theo is struggling with his own consciousness and does not know what happened. The stranger mentions the name of his business partner and gives Theo a man’s “pinky” ring to take to his partner as a token of introduction. The stranger, seeing “The Goldfinch” drop from fallen debris, tells Theo to take it. There is something odd about the stranger’s “…Goldfinch” suggestion and comments about his business partnership. The stranger asks Theo to warn his partner about being beaten up.
The stranger asks Theo again about the little girl. She is nowhere to be seen. Three mysteries have been created by Tartt. One, why did the stranger want Theo to meet his partner; two, why did the stranger want Theo to take the painting; and three, where is the girl? The third mystery is soon solved but reasons for the stranger’s comments about his partner and why Theo had been told to take “The Goldfinch” are unanswered for many chapters.
Theo eventually meets the stranger’s partner. The girl survived the blast and is recovering at the business partner’s home. The business partner seems like a paragon of virtue, a god-send for Theo and a refuge for the little girl. The consequence of PTSD is explored in the relationship between Theo and the little girl.
Theo has been orphaned by the blast. His mother is dead. His father has skipped town. His grandparents (his mother’s parents) do not appear to want him. Theo becomes a temporary ward of a wealthy New York Park Avenue’ family–they knew Theo because one of their sons went to school with him. After several months, Theo’s father appears and suspiciously insists on taking Theo away to live with him in Las Vegas.
Theo moves to Las Vegas with his biological father for reasons that become known as the story progresses. Theo takes “The Gold Finch”, which is now a missing work of art, presumed stolen or destroyed. It is a “priceless” 17th century painting. Theo does not know what to do with the painting because he has had it too long and is fearful of the consequence of discovery. Theo is afraid he will be arrested for art theft.
In moving to Las Vegas, Theo is uprooted from his upper-class New York life. As a newcomer to Las Vegas, he becomes close friends with a young Russian immigrant that introduces him to the world of alcohol, drugs, and teenage hijinks. Theo is now the ripe old age of 13.
Theo’s father is a high stakes gambler and sports bettor that lives with a Las Vegas bartender who sells drugs on the side. When things are good, they are very good but Theo’s father falls into debt with a loan shark because of his high risk gambling. Theo’s father spirals out of control and dies in a car wreck. Theo’s Las Vegas life style reveals genetic footprints of his father’s way of dealing with life. Tartt makes that idea clear by having the father’s girlfriend say that Theo is just like his father.
After his father’s death, Theo, at 15, returns to New York with “The Goldfinch” and a dog in tow. (The dog lived with his father and Las Vegas girlfriend.) In returning to New York, Theo is re-introduced to the business partner and the little girl. This is a turning point in the novel.
Theo can pursue the life style of his father or become more like his mother. Dreiser also writes a crossroad into Clyde Griffiths’ life. Griffith can choose to take another’s life or not. Here, Tartt turns away from Drieser’s fated character in making the only life that may be wasted is Theo’s own.
Tartt gives many clues about which road Theo will take. Genetics, drugs, and PTSD, are among Theo’s roadblocks to a future. It is up to the reader or listener to surmise Theo’s choice; even asTartt completes her tale. This is a classic 21st century story of an American life, expertly narrated by David Pittu.
UPDATE: DONNA TARTT RECEIVED THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR LITERATURE WITH “THE GOLDFINCH” IN 2014.