October 24, 2013

The Goldfinch Proves Fairy-Tales are for Adults, Too

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Long books are scary. I get that. They are a major time commitment, they require emotional investment and well, they’re heavy both physically and figuratively. It’s hard when you’re a college student, especially at Cornell, to put in the effort to read a book that’s not for school, particularly one that’s almost 800 pages. However, if you have the time and the zeal to read one big book this semester; if you crave adventure, mystery, love and storytelling at its higher caliber; if you would prefer, for a change, to spend an hour a day on soul-searching stimulation instead of on Facebook; then please choose to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

The Goldfinch follows the life of Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old Manhattanite at the story’s open. In a sort of rewritten history of New York, there is a terrorist attack on The Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills Theo’s mother and leaves him virtually alone. In the aftermath and chaos of the attack, Theo takes a small painting — The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius — before leaving the wreckage. The rest of the story follows Theo through his teenage years and into adulthood as he copes with the death of his mother and the consequences of holding onto precious stolen art, which eventually leads him into the dangerous world of underground art fraud. We follow him to the home of his wealthy friend on Park Avenue, to Las Vegas — where he lives a tortured childhood with an abusive father, back to New York several years later and to Amsterdam as an adult, where the suspense culminates and, I warn you, might force you to stay up all night to see what happens.

It is certainly the most anticipated book of the season — perhaps of the year — and has debuted with several features, reviews (including one by Stephen King) and interviews with the ever-elusive and ever-fabulous author, Donna Tartt. The Times’ Julie Bosman refers to Tartt as “a cross between Anna Wintour and Oscar Wilde.”

Tartt earned this affiliation with good reason. The particularly special thing about The Goldfinch is that it is Tartt’s first book in 11 years. Her two previous books, The Secret History and The Little Friend (also a decade apart) have been translated into 30 languages and lauded as instant modern classics. The same will go for her latest. Tartt does not go on book tours, nor does she give many interviews or talks. In an age where publishing is based heavily on self-promotion, personal twitter accounts and obsessive marketing, Tartt is refreshingly old-fashioned, letting her prose stand alone. The mystique of her ability to disappear for years at a time and return with a masterpiece reflects wonderfully in the mystery and ingenuity of her few but formative novels.

The Goldfinch is Dickensian in form with dozens of unforgettable characters, poetic language that you can’t help to reread several times over and a deep investment in plot that can only occur in its truest form when one follows a boy as he comes of age. What I tell my friends when I want to convince them to read this book, though, is that it is Harry Potter for adults. There is no actual magic involved, of course, but the depth of what’s at stake and the themes of friendship, bravery and mortality are gloriously similar. Tartt must have been a Harry Potter fan: even her hero is lovingly called Potter by his quirky friend Boris, due to the circular wire-rim glasses that he wears his whole life.

Tartt has a knack for taking giant topics like terrorism, art theft, drug use and fraud, and making them shockingly intimate and real. She does not hold back on questions like, “Why do we love art?” “Why is life so hard?” “What do we do when we have nothing left to live for?” Theo finds love not from the family that he has lost, but from the hodge-podge of friends and characters that take him in and deal him compassion along the way. However, unlike Harry Potter, the last line is not “All was well.” Tartt does not wrap everything up in its utmost convenience. Theo, the narrator, concludes that life really is a “cesspool”, but he extracts beauty from a messed-up world in such a poetic, interesting way that it’s hard to finish this story without heaving sobs of emotional clarity and satisfaction. The glory of this conclusion is that Theo reminds us that even though our existence is random and fleeting, we have an immortality that lives on within art — art like The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, art like The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Lucy Goss is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].