I got a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as soon as it hit the bookstore. My favorite bookstore at the time was a satellite of Berkeley’s famous Cody’s, located in the Opera Plaza on the corner of Van Ness and McAllister in San Francisco. It was the same bookstore where if you put a dollar in a glass jar you were allowed to look at Madonna’s Sex book for a minute, and there was a line for that privilege, which seems awfully quaint now, with the internet and everything. It was 1992.
I’m very nostalgic lately for the late 80s and early 90s because that’s when I lived in San Francisco, and although most of the time it was parking tickets, thieves and the usual city sights like drunks urinating in bus stop gutters, there were also the rare balmy city nights that I could run around in my LBD or hot pink suit from restaurant to club, South of Market, Chinatown or through the empty financial district and over to North Beach, free and full of possibility. There were the hushed pea soup mornings, walking through Golden Gate Park while someone played bagpipes in the rhododendron grove and the camel colored bison calves emerged from the fog, like gentle monsters, their darker and much larger elders behind them like shadows.
I actually met Donna Tartt in ’92 when she toured for The Secret History and did a reading at Cody’s (if you can call introducing myself and asking her to sign my copy of her novel meeting her). I’ll write more about that when I reread The Secret History, but suffice to say that I was a fan from the beginning. With her sharp, shiny bob, tiny, slender figure and what was obviously a uniform of Brooks Brother’s-style boys shirt and blazer, she not only wrote the way I wished I could write, she looked the way I wished I could look.
The Goldfinch, only Tartt’s third novel in over 20 years, is practically perfect in every way. As in The Secret History, Tartt’s narrator is male. Early in the book the character, Theo, describes his mother as someone who, “cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary.”
It’s a great description of a rare type of person. I think my 20s and early 30s were the time when such a person could easily work their magic upon me. Around that time I was hanging out with a troupe of actors, and actors seem to exhibit the “heightened reality” characteristic more often than others. It’s not only that ability to get immersed and obsessed–a piece of music, the quality of the light on an afternoon, the lined face of the lady who runs the laundromat–but to get other people to notice and get excited about it too. Falling in love with this type of person is easy.
One more thing and then I’ll quit making it all about me: Theo describes a scene his mother elevated with her personality, a birthday party they observed in a restaurant. I observed a similar scene that is still fresh in my memory 30 years later. I was walking at dusk through an old neighborhood and came upon a little Spanish-style house, white with light blue trim, the blue color still faintly visible in the darkness. Parrot tulips, with their circus-tent stripes and curly petals, bloomed in the front yard, fierce dabs of red and yellow against the fading light. Inside, through the large arched window, I saw a family gathered around a table. Pink balloons were suspended from the ceiling like the lanterns in John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. A blonde girl’s face was illuminated by a cake full of candles, the only source of light in the room.
The Goldfinch makes me want to write about memories like these.
So Theo’s mom, a “nervy” former model, who wears a white satin trench coat and black and white loafers and whose name is Audrey, meant, I’ll bet, to put a picture of Audrey Hepburn in the reader’s mind, is a single mother. Her husband, who’s painted as a truculent drunk, has left her and their son for a fresh start; no forwarding address. This part of the book doesn’t ring quite true for me. The mother is saintly, humble and yet interesting, not the type of woman, I don’t think, to fall for an insecure, self-centered alcoholic. It sounds like even when Theo’s dad was around, Audrey and Theo created a little club of two, shutting out the father. It makes me like the mother less.
Also, I’m not quite sure about the mother’s outfit, I mean, whether Tartt meant for her to appear chic–crisp and put together–or whether she meant for her to read as down at the heels. I can’t quite imagine a white satin trench coat on anybody; it sounds like something you’d find at Marshall’s or Ross Dress for Less. Her pink scarf, described as filmy, reminds me of the ubiquitous pink nylon scarf at every second hand store you’ve ever shopped at; the kind of scarf ladies in the fifties would tie over their curlers before bed each night. Why not describe a classic old Hermes scarf for Audrey, handed down from her horse breeder mother? The sheer pink scarf sounds so cheap to me and makes it hard for me to get a clear read on the mother character.
But perhaps Theo is an unreliable narrator. We know he is a bit of a truant, but also he describes his father very pointedly as “unreliable” and, well, like father like son? Still, they live on 57th Street in Manhattan in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a building with a doorman. How is that possible on one income? Theo mentions that one night they had to scour the apartment for loose change to pay for take-out.
The descriptions of Dutch paintings at the Met are wonderful and educational. What happens after Theo and his mother view the paintings and are ready to leave the museum–the explosion–is also described vividly, and anyone who remembers the first person accounts of the buildings coming down on 9/11 will recognize a lot of the imagery–the textures and variety of debris, including human bodies; the thick, choking dust, gritty and white; the deafening sirens. Tartt obviously had 9/11 images and reporting fresh in her mind as she was writing, and I would bet that she wrote this section very soon after 9/11, since she takes about a decade to write a book and this one was published in 2013.
It was interesting to observe my reaction to Theo’s “rescue” of the Goldfinch painting, which the explosion had knocked clear out of its frame. He wiped the dust from it with his sleeve and I cringed–as a former museum docent, even pointing too closely to a painting or bringing a pen into a gallery is cause for alarm. Wiping a masterpiece with one’s sleeve is almost painful to imagine. As Theo crawled through the rubble to make his escape I thought mainly of the poor painting, bumping along behind him in a nylon sack. Was this intentional–did Tartt mean for the reader to think of the painting’s welfare–or am I a misanthropic monster?
I can’t get over Tartt’s genius in seeing the narrative potential in Carel Fabritius’ painting. The titular sweet little bird is fastened to a perch by a thin chain. This powerful detail, showing the pathetic, captive life the creature must have led, is a microcosm of the lives of most of the characters, in fact, I’d extend that to all of life since humans covered (and began destroying) the earth.
Each character, it seems to me, is a prisoner of some sort. There are many addicts throughout the novel, and Theo, before he becomes a full-blown addict himself, is often describing people or situations w/r/t alcohol, as in someone seeming alcoholic. It’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black, and, since we know his father and grandfather were alcoholics, it foreshadows the fact that Theo will also have issues with addiction; he already looks at the world through that lens.
Theo stays with an upper crust family, the Barbours, who take him in so that he doesn’t have to go into “the system” after his grandparents fail to invite him into their home. The name “Barbour” is fitting for this family that is sharp –barbed–tongued, though the parents and one child, Andy, are very kind to Theo while he lives with them. Much later in the book a desperate Theo sees Mr. Barbour on the street and his formerly genial host, who is bi-polar, shocks him with a fast and harsh, “No more handouts!” which hits Theo like a rabbit punch.
During his time at the Barbours, Theo gets up the courage to visit Hobart and Blackwell, the company that the old man in the museum mentioned when he pressed an antique gold and carnelian ring into Theo’s hand just before dying. He meets Mr. Hobart–Hobie–who becomes his legal guardian later in the book.
Hobie, like all of the characters in The Goldfinch, is beautifully described and we can certainly picture him clearly. For me, he would be played by Michael Gambon if there were a movie version. He is large, but elegant; has something of the docks about him, but is also noble; he is exactly what Theo needs–an attentive, intelligent, honest and caring parent, sort of Gandalf to Theo’s Frodo.
Hobie, the more I think of it, is almost like a wizard or minor deity, an assistant to Hephaestus, working away in the underworld of the “shop behind the shop,” in the dark among the noxious fumes of furniture stains and polishes with poisonous-sounding names like “lampblack” and “Venice turpentine.” The old antiques are like creatures, with goat or ball-in-claw feet and phoenix ornamentation.
Like a wizard or god (the shop-behind-the-shop, the man behind the curtain?) Hobie transforms from a disheveled man smoking in a bathrobe to a dapper gent in a bespoke suit to a Midsummer mechanical in a leather apron, expertly joining mortise to tenon. Also, he is a creator: his changelings are hybrid pieces of furniture, made from a mix of old and new elements. He beats them with keys and chains to give them scars, rubbing patina into them with wax, giving them the glow of life. At one point Theo refers to them as Frankensteins.
Even Theo’s grave crime of selling these monsters as genuine thoroughbred antiques does not send Hobie into a rage or make him cast off his errant ward. His wisdom and forgiveness make him seem better than human.
Boris. What can one say about everybody’s favorite character in The Goldfinch? When Theo’s father shows up at the Barbours (a very surprising twist) I felt a huge let down as a reader that I would be leaving New York City, the Barbours and Hobie and traveling to Las Vegas (ugh) with Theo’s deadbeat father and his brittle girlfriend named Xandra, a name fit for a stripper. But Tartt gives us Boris to get us through.
Although the book takes a very sharp turn by moving the scene to the desert and exchanging the characters around Theo for a few people ranging from sleaze to slime, his soon to be best friend Boris is so entertaining and original that I found myself let down once again several hundred pages later, when Theo takes the bus back to New York.
Tartt also introduces Poppers (Popchik), a little dog (Toto?) in this section. Immediately on meeting Poppers, it’s a very “save the cat” moment when the reader senses that the little dog is neglected. I felt relieved when Theo and Boris adopted the dog and were so attentive to it. For me, the dog is a stand in for the literal bird (goldfinch) and the painting–all are imprisoned, at the mercy of humans. The dog’s fate, at least, ends up being very good.
Without spoiling the novel (and anyway, I don’t feel like writing much more because the rest of the–very long–book is a little exasperating), I’ll end soon. After all, it is a Selfish Book Club and I’ll write only as much as keeps it fun for me. Suffice to say that Theo gets back to New York and there are romances, requited and unrequited; there are good deeds committed and also crimes; there are unexpected deaths. And finally, there is a section that takes place in Amsterdam that is like a fever dream, surreal and sweaty.
Tartt wraps up the book with a surprisingly “heart on her character’s sleeve” bunch of philosophical musings about art and beauty and life that seem a little too pat (“Be yourself,” “follow your heart” type stuff wrapped in nice language) but this choice of ending pages does leave the reader feeling sated and smart. My favorite part:
“No one will ever , ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because here’s the truth: life is catastrophe…. For me–and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly until the day I die, til I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born than to be born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins and broken hearts. …no way out but death.” A character after my own heart!
So we sing like the chained bird; we wade through the cesspool taking refuge in beautiful things that “speak to us across time;” “we beat on, boats against the current.” And we save the cat.