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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

When the exhibition of Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis came to the San Francisco De Young museum in January 2013, the featured painting was “Girl With a Pearl Earring”.   With so many masterpieces outshining each other, the relatively small and stark “Goldfinch” barely made an impression on me.   “Nice Trompe l’oeil”, I thought, and moved on to the next painting.   Donna Tartt, with much greater perception, saw a story which she developed into a 771 page, Pulitzer Prize winning, and number one, best-selling novel. Today, if the same show returned to the De Young, it could very well be called “The Goldfinch”,  such is the clamoring of attention that  Carel Fabritius’s painting from 1654 is currently enjoying as result of the book.

When a book with literary ambitions also achieves great popularity, you may wonder how (or if) those two, often mutually exclusive aims, can be accomplished in one work.  Donna Tartt writes in a style which I found surprisingly easy and engaging and at the same time,  plumbs the depths of quite a number of themes.  Among these are: loss of a parent, loss of a child, reality vs. deception, the role of art in life, materialism, loyalty, sincerity vs. pretense, perceived value vs. intrinsic value, free will, the looting of art, good outcomes derived from bad deeds, and altered or transfigured states, to name a few.  Her many apt metaphors and turns of phrase illuminated the story in my mind with little effort on my part.  The central metaphor is the painting, “The Goldfinch”.  It is a picture of a bird tethered to a perch by a short chain in a 17th century home against a plain drab wall.  The implications of a fettered life resonate with the life of the main character, Theo, who steals the painting from a museum and spends the rest of the book trying to release himself from it.   The story takes place mainly in New York City, with excursions to Amsterdam,  Las Vegas, and a few other minor stops.  The number of characters is manageable.  The plot is complex with several unexpected turns.   Towards the end there are several passages where the author, through the narrator and two other characters, reflects and expounds on the themes presented throughout the book.  This part requires a little more digging in since it is more abstract and without physical action.  I believe there is a lot to enjoy and learn from this book.  I hope you get a chance to read it.

Bill Sargeant

Link to painting: http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/mauritshuis/605

For a sample of the book listen to this: