What draws us to beauty? Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has some answers

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 16, 2014


It will be a Happy New Year for Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France,
Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia and Spain but not for
any of the reasons you might expect.  They are an unlikely group of countries to lump together and they’re not about to find common ground. Come 2014, they won’t be sharing a linked political good fortune or winning economic philosophy. They are not launching a north-south trade union.

But they will have their own editions of Donna Tartt’s new novel ‘The Goldfinch’. It is something to celebrate.

This is how her novel has been described: “A young boy in New York city,
Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of
his mother. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city
as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and
on the city streets. He becomes entranced by the one thing that
reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting
that soon draws Theo into the art underworld. Composed with the skills
of a master, ‘The Goldfinch’ is a haunted odyssey through present-day
America. It is a story of loss and obsession, survival and
self-invention, and the enormous power of art”.

That’s a fair description except that it’s not. As in Ms Tartt’s first
novel, ‘The Secret History’, the books opens with an acknowledgement
that there’s been a murder. Much like ‘The Secret History’, the novel
chronicles the heedless badness of the very young and very vulnerable. But unlike ‘The Secret History’, Ms Tartt is able to pull the story together in a way that is a little like the exquisite Carel Fabritius painting that is at the heart of the story and gives the book its title.

For Ms Tartt examines eternal questions – what draws us to beauty? What makes us stand gaping in a museum before a painting like ‘The Goldfinch’ or that cliché, the Mona Lisa, which is found everywhere anyway – on tea towels, fridge magnets, Google doodles. What gives a beautiful object power?

Because “the line of beauty is the line of beauty” even if it came off the Xerox machine. Because great art remains untouched by death…”…as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” So she writes in ‘The Goldfinch’.

Anyway, so Theo survives a bomb blast in a museum. He carries off ‘The
Goldfinch’, keeping it for years even though he knows he ought to
return it. He falls in to bad company, drinks, does drugs at 13. Even
after his self-propelled rehabilitation, he retains a sly chicanery, a
casual dishonesty and a troubling lack of remorse. His struggle
against himself is wholly absorbing.

Ms Tartt’s new book seems a lot like her. Mysterious. With hidden depths.
Decided preoccupations. Unhurriedness.

Imagine a bestselling author who’s written just three novels in 20
years. Imagine a writer who can resist the urge to churn out a
manuscript or two every couple of years, confident that they will be
taken up – and read and reviewed – on the strength of her name.

Instead, Ms Tartt works at a novel in the way of an antique furniture
restorer, much like Hobie, one of the characters in ‘The Goldfinch’.
She chips at the storyline delicately, taking her time over sensuous
description, feeling the grain of the narrative with her fingertips
just as much as with her inner eye. As she writes, “beauty alters the grain of reality.”