The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Cover illustration for The Goldfinch by Donna Tart Back in August I finished a book. My Amazon history (yes, I know, at some point down the line I’ll find a way to be a better person) tells me I actually bought it the previous November, and I know I started it right away because I was super excited about the whole thing. I loved The Secret History so much I’d buy anything Donna Tartt wrote. Of course, since she writes on average one highly decorated book per decade, so far that’s been real easy.

So why did this book (which I honestly really enjoyed) take me nine months to read and another three to review? Two reasons: primarily, graduate school and a full time job have made me into a vacuous crazy person who only reads historical romances (preferably in a bathtub, with wine) when the day has been too much to ever think about again, and secondly, though I can legitimately claim to have loved this book, I didn’t exactly love the middle 300 or so pages—but more on that later.

The first chapter left me totally amazed, engrossed, enamored. I felt sure sure it must have been excerpted The New Yorker or something and I’d missed it, because that initial chapter could stand alone. I learned later that the extract in fact appeared in the Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker having declared itself too good for this book.

We know from the first line that the narrator’s mother is dead, that she died traumatically. 13-year old Theo, was in trouble at school—for smoking maybe, or some other misdemeanor, he’ll never know which one exactly. He and his mother were summoned to the office one rainy day, and, unable to get a cab, they ducked into the Met where his mother shows him a favorite painting, the titular Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1654

While there, he observes another pair of patrons, a red headed girl his own age, and an old man, grandfather or uncle.

Minutes later Theo and his mother separate: he, secretly, to talk to the red headed girl, she to take one last look in the gallery. Then a museum guard runs past, and a bomb explodes.

Theo awakes in the aftermath of the April 10 terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fictitious but entirely plausible event. In the ruble, he finds one other living person, the old man who had accompanied the girl. Deaf and disoriented from the blast, the two meet, speak briefly; the old man gives Theo his ring and the name of his business, and gestures at a painting on the wall—the same painting his mother had taken him to see—the Goldfinch. The old man dies horrifically and, in panic and confusion, Theo takes the painting and leaves the premises.

The events of this day will color the rest of Theo’s life. He becomes permanently entangled in the life of the old man, Welty, falling desperately and hopelessly in love with his great niece Pippa, the red headed girl he first admired, finding a mentor in the dead man’s former business partner, Hobie, and most of all, finding himself burdened and oppressed by the possession of a priceless work of art, which he can neither safely display, nor sell, nor bear to part with.

In the weeks and months that follow the attack, a grief-stricken, tortured Theo finds a temporary home with the family of a wealthy classmate and friend, Andy Barbour, and begins to pick up the threads of Welty’s life—only to be swept away when his absentee father abruptly swoops down on him and bears him off to Las Vegas.

In the slow, painful period after the death of Theo’s mother, its easy to drift off as a reader; in Las Vegas, its two pages max before sleep takes over. This section is interminable. Theo finds himself marooned in a subprime Las Vegas housing development with his father, a professional but evidently unsuccessful gambler, his girlfriend, a drug dealing waitress, and one friend, Boris, the son of a Russian diplomat who also resides in his deserted subdivision. The boys drink, drug and shoplift endlessly. And, that’s more or less it for a good 150 pages. Any abridger can safely skip these chapters; I’m pretty sure they won’t make a major portion of the movie (Yes, that’s right. It’s been optioned. By the producers of the Hunger Games.) It’s this novel’s Lowood School days.

That this part of the book is boring is maybe not so inappropriate for a bildungsroman–junior high and high school are boring–but considering Tartt will shortly skip over eight years in Theo’s life, I’d argue that we probably didn’t need to stick with him through this bit either.

After the sudden death of his father, Theo decides its time to return to New York. So with a wad of cash and pills and a lap dog, all stolen from his father’s girlfriend, and the Goldfinch, carefully wrapped in pillowcases and tape, he says goodbye to Boris and boards the bus for New York, arriving on Hobie’s doorstep days later.

The story picks up again eight years on. Once again, its unputdownable. We find Theo entangled with the Barbour family, systematically cheating the nouveau riche into purchasing faked antiques, living and working with Hobie, now as a partner in his own right. The painting remains carefully wrapped in those same old pillowcases in a storage unit. Now, the FBI is looking for it, and one questionable individual on the outskirts of the New York antiques market seems to know that Theo has it.

Then one night out in the village Theo stumbles into a bar and unexpectedly encounters his old friend Boris, now a small time criminal whose exact business interests remain unclear. Boris guiltily confesses that he stole the painting back in high school. The thing Theo has so carefully guarded all these years, the thing that has anchored him and inspired so much fear and anxiety, is an old text book. Boris sold the work to some minor Eastern European gangsters but, he promises Theo, he will help to recover it. So begins a harrowing, over-the-top, at times farcical effort to recover the painting, culminating in Yuletide violence in Amsterdam and Theo’s unlikely and rather abrupt extrication from all his difficulties.

In the aftermath, a reunited Hobie and Theo discuss the painting with something approaching frankness, and Theo learns that the day of the bombing, Welty was in the building because of the Goldfinch; that he had come to the museum specially because he wanted Pippa to see it. It was that one masterwork, its eloquence, the passion it engendered in each disparate individual, that drove them all. Tartt concludes her ironic, over-the-top novel, with somewhat unexpectedly earnest reflections on the nature and value of art and beauty and the reality of fate.

I was surprised, when preparing to write this post, to find the novel has been called Dickensian, and by the book review of book reviews no less…then by everybody else. In structure and theme, the similarity is undeniable. In spirit and tone, the work could not be more divided. Yes, The Goldfinch is a long book spanning a long period of time; the plot relies on coincidence almost to the point of magic; its told from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth; there are a lot of non-essential eccentric characters, especially old people; there’s gambling and a sick girl, (Dickens loved both these); financial striving and class anxiety are major themes; and about 30% of it more or less actually takes place inside The Old Curiosity Shop. (Okay, so I’m not a Dickens fan—I side with Henry James (an actual good novelist) on this one.) Even the author herself seems to concur that the work is Dickensian, though maybe not deliberately so.

Theme and structure, though, are only frameworks in this context; vehicles for genre play; a nod and a wink to a convention the author embraces only selectively. The work is modern in its expression of heroism, post-modern in its referential style. It lacks the moral center and dialog of Dickens, and exhibits a different sense of humor. The melodrama is self-conscious rather than earnest. The characters are as far from life as any Dickensian characters ever were, but they are not satiric caricatures as the population of London seems to have been; they are merely deeply flawed, drastically selfish, mostly shallow, and a little strange. (Possibly, that is a reflection of the difference between Dickens’ third person and Tartt’s first.)

Its is a faberge egg of a book: delicate, fantastic, esoteric, entirely artificial, a testament to craftsmanship without being exactly beautiful–but by no means light, and impossible to dismiss. That seems to have confused all of us, a confusion that has been further exacerbated by the accolades the work has garnered on one hand, and the extreme criticism it has received on the other hand.

Kombucha Klub

I celebrated by return to California today by doing the most California thing possible: brewing Kombucha. I got my scooby two weeks ago as part of my office scooby exchange (yes, really), carrying it home on Bart in a mason jar with a paper towel over the top. I’m sure the smell endeared me to the rest of the crowded car fully of rush hour commuters.

I then proceeded to shove the thing in my pantry for two weeks while I went out of town. Surprisingly, this seems not to have mattered.



Upon my return I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when moving between time zones: took two Advil, drank a pint of water, and collapsed into bed at 6:00 P.M., where I remained for roughly 14 hours.

I woke up in the morning feeling just rehabilitated enough to make my house habitable again. I bought groceries, mopped the floor, vacuumed (incidentally, I bought an informercial vacuum on impulse right before leaving on my trip), did laundry, paid bills, and generally behaved the way I imagine a responsible adult who has to be at work by 8:00 on Monday probably should behave. One of the to-dos on my list, in between buying toothpaste and writing an angry letter to United airlines (postponed to tomorrow), was to rescue my poor scooby.

I chose the first recipe in the Google results. I have yet to read it to the end.

I had no black tea in the house due to my level of caffeine consumption as I tried to prepare my graduate project before leaving. I drank all my coffee, all my tea, and even these little packets of Starbucks instant coffee my mom gave me two Christmases ago. Ugh. So, I decided to use Spicely hibiscus.

I like the idea of herbal tea more than I actually like drinking herbal tea. I tend to buy it in batches of four or five boxes at beginning of a health kick, usually in an effort to fool myself into drinking more water. I’m especially guilty of buying and saving boxes of Spicely teas, because I really enjoy going to the store. Its maybe a mile from my office, just down from Montgomery Bart, and it sells only three things: spices, tea, and chocolate. Two of these things are available for sampling. They even pair the teas and chocolates, a conceit which I’m pretty sure is absolute nonsense, but which I really enjoy. They have these little adorable shopping baskets, and the women working there will tell you which teas are good for which ailments, and in general going there is a great relief from being in downtown San Francisco.

Hibiscus tea

Hibiscus tea

The hibiscus tea instead of black was my first departure from the recipe.

Of course, I’d forgotten that I bought a box of PG Tips for my office, so in fact I had plenty of black tea all along…oh well.

Kombucha Tea

After I reminded myself how many cups are in 3 1/2 quarts, I boiled the water, stirred in two heaping tablespoons of tea, and a cup of white sugar. The tea steeps in the pot until cool enough to be transferred to some kind of glass or plastic receptacle. The main thing is not to put anything as close to vinegar as Kombucha in something made of metal. I used to giant mason jar, because even though the Kombucha has to stay in the dark while it brews, for some reason I like making it pretty. Fine.

Once the tea is really room temperature, you add two cups of tea from a previous batch (this is your starter), followed by the scooby itself.

Here, I wandered from the recipe again. My jar was not large enough to hold all the tea, so I dumped all my rice into a tupperware, washed out that jar, and started a second batch. I’d already dumped all the starter into the first jar, so I just poured some of that, along with the extra sugary tea, into the second jar. Then I started to worry that the tea was still too hot, so I waited a while longer before sliding the scooby in.

Sometime during the two weeks I’d been away, my scooby developed a friend, so I put one in each jar, covering one with cheese cloth, the other with paper towel, and placed both in the pantry, where they will remain for the next 7 – 10 days. Here’s hoping this doesn’t end up giving me a weird infection or making me blind or something.