February 20, 2014

Uborka Book Club: The Goldfinch, Book One

Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch (1654)

Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (1654)

Readers be ye warned! Spoilers will abound from this point onwards. Book One is comprised of four chapters (1. Boy with a Skull — 2. The Anatomy Lesson — 3. Park Avenue — 4. Morphine Lollipop) and I think we’ll be discussing events at least through the first two or three, though probably more Book One discussions may flower in the comments through the weekend. 

So, Goldfinchers. Here we are. We’ve begun our journey in Amsterdam, locked in a hotel and jumping at shadows with Theo Decker, although we don’t quite know why. Then, in a dream sequence that may or may not be an homage to the Mirror of Erised (okay probably not, Donna Tartt may not mind the Dickensian analogies but I’m betting she hates Harry Potter, well anyway it certainly reminded me of the Mirror of Erised), we learn that Theo’s mother is dead, that there’s a lovely shop run by someone named Hobie, and all we can do is file these little details away because we’re swooping down on a much younger Theo and his mother on the streets of Manhattan and he tells us, “things would have turned out much better if she had lived.” Wooooosh. Here we go.

(Let’s talk about is the suspended animation of flashback that Tartt constructs so expertly. It’s certainly not unique to this novel but a framework that is done so often and so badly that it was refreshing to open a book, realize what framework I was stepping into, and find it so well executed. We know in the first few pages that things have come to no good in this hotel room in Amsterdam, we’ve got this tantalizing and beautifully drawn place where Hobie will eventually be found, and his mother is dead and beloved. Phew! Were you as drawn in as I was?)

In chapters one and two, we have a terrorist bomb going off in the museum, never mentioned by name but 100% the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo’s mother is killed in the blast and he meets, and ministrates to the dying words of, Welton ‘Welty’ Blackwell, who gives him a ring with the family crest, with instructions to take it to Hobart & Blackwell and ring the green bell. He also presses into Theo’s hand the painting of Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, which is so small and precious and miraculously whole amid chaos. When Theo leaves the museum, injured and traumatized, it’s with both these talismans in his hands.

Theo hopes his mother has survived but we know she hasn’t; his absent father and neglectful grandparents become the fate he’s trying to avoid to varying degrees of success. He’s taken in by the Barbours, resplendent in inherited wealth and cozy stability on the Upper East Side in a way that elides the turbulence under the water. Meanwhile, the painting is at first casually kept from view, and then as the days go on, more and more deliberately hidden and coveted by Theo.

I’m going to stop there. Here are some of my favorite thinking points in the first few chapters, to light the kindling for discussion in the comments:

  • Theo’s mother is almost not a real person. From the very first pages she’s Eurydice to Theo’s Orpheus; they walk into the museum together and he walks out alone and she’s trapped in amber, perfect, delightful, but unchanging. I found a lot of parallels between her and the little bird in the painting, did you?
  • Fathers, fathers, fathers, y’know? Andy’s father, present but flighty … Theo’s father, absent and slightly malignant. (Eventually, Boris’s father, but we’ll get to that.) And into this tableau of disappointment saunter Welty and Hobie, neither of them actually fathers at all, but more paternal to their wards (Pippa and Theo) than the real fathers in our midst.
  • Time, and timelessness: one thing that struck me very strongly in the New York scenes is that Tartt seems almost unwilling to set this in the present day. The way she paints the apartment buildings, the streets, the descriptions of dress and attitude, fell so out-of-time and antique that it’s jarring to read about a cell phone or the internet — which, admittedly, doesn’t happen often in these opening chapters. I kept having to remind myself this wasn’t the heyday of 1960s New York. I have some thoughts about how deliberate it is (and I’m not sure I love it), but I’m interested to see if anyone else was similarly jarred by modernity, particularly in these scenes.
  • If you’ve gotten to the end of Chapter 3, and the introduction of Hobie and the shop, let’s talk about how much we love Hobie and the shop. I could feel the friendly dust motes swirling around my head as we walked in, and I immediately wanted to stay forever, which is of course Theo’s feeling too.
  • By the way, who else loves the term bildungsroman? I’ve been reading up on the various book reviews of this novel, which of course is a coming-of-age story, and every time I stumble upon the word, I get a little frisson of joy. Words that describe literary frameworks or genres (bildungsroman, roman à clef, epistolary, penny dreadful) might be some of my favorite words.



9 thoughts on “Uborka Book Club: The Goldfinch, Book One

  1. Ooh, great start Krissa, thank you!
    I’ve finished reading it, because I couldn’t put it down. I too was particularly struck by the not-quite-timelessness. The whole atmosphere seemed very early 20th Century, so yes, the first mention of a cellphone kind of hit me in the face. Of course a bomb in the museum could be seen as a very 21st Century affair (at least for those who aren’t Northern Irish) but yes, I certainly noticed that. And again in later chapters in Vegas, but we’ll come to that…

    I’m interested that you see parallels between Theo’s mother and the caged bird; I saw the parallels between Theo and the bird, always trapped in a life he didn’t choose, however gilded the cage was at times.

    Yes, I loved Hobie and the shop. My thoughts on this consist entirely of spoilers for the next section.

  2. I spent a lot of the first couple of chapters trying to work out what the date of the bombing was. I’m not sure it entirely matters, but I wanted to know at least it was pre or post 9/11 or whether this was some other chronology when this bombing happened instead of 9/11.
    However. I love the shop and Pippa’s faithful doggie friend and I was so sad when she had to say goodbye.

  3. Karen, I think our flighty little friend contains multitudes as a metaphor – I think Tartt means us to see several parallels with the goldfinch. I was thinking particularly of the physical descriptions of Theo’s mother (I am wracking my brain to remember whether she was ever given a name?) as delicate and beautiful, but also nervous and caught-between. And also I think Theo imprints onto the painting as a surrogate for his mother’s last words and thoughts.

    Bekki, I had the same thoughts. My feeling is that the Met bombing was meant to be an alternate-reality stand-in for the WTC attack; I think Tartt lived at least part-time in New York back in 2001 and it felt very evocative of that day. And yes, agreed, on the lovely dog. Generally the dogs in this book are fantastic. Tartt is clearly a dog person.

  4. I’m still waking up so my more considered comments will come later. Theo is 27 at the telling of his story, I’m assuming he’s born in 1986/1987. He is 13 at the bombing- so 9/11 equivalent depending on the year you pick for the telling.

  5. Before I forget— I agree with Krissa that The Goldfinch is a many-faceted metaphor. At first I thought Theo saw the painting as the only connection left to his mother, Audrey. Futher in, Theo was The Goldfinch and then I started to see all the characters in one way or another as this precious bit of life, trapped in space and time.
    This is from a Telegraph interview last year with Tartt

    “This little bird, so brave and so dignified, and then you see that terrible little chain…
    “It’s in the Upanishads, I believe – a chained bird is used as the metaphor for the breath in the human body; it goes out, and then it always comes out to rest in the same place. Our body is the chained place, the place where we’re caught. Breath is spiritus in Latin. That being the paradox of humanity. We’re winged creatures on some level, but we’re also trapped. We can fly, but we can’t.” She pauses. “Anyway…”

  6. Thanks, Asta, for the Tartt quote. I have also been devouring the few breadcrumbs into her thought process that she’s been willing to leave us in her few interviews.

    Here’s an oldie-but-goodie from 2002:

    I found myself thinking about how she picked this particular painting as her talisman around which to structure the book, and the dual calamities from which this painting escapes even while the little bird is still chained to its rail, and also generally the symmetry in Amsterdam // New Amsterdam … multitudes indeed.

  7. I have so many thoughts about this book that I’m trying to rein myself in and not overload the comments, so I’m only going to mention three things for this section.


    “If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal,’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

    I can’t say “The Goldfinch” changed me, but it did call to me, because of my own history. My father died in a plane crash two weeks before my eleventh birthday. I was a trompe l’oeil artist, and an interior design business owner for a decade. A fair part of my work involved murals, paintings and restoring furniture. I first visited New York when I was three, and by the time I was nine I knew my way to my favourite bits of the Met by internal radar. It is my favourite city even though I will never live there.


    I agree with Krissa. I think Tartt is trying to trying to eat her cake and have it too. I think she wants this book to be timeless, but given the rapid pace of change in technologies now it’s almost impossible. Something as simple as Theo talking about having his cell phone confiscated and having to use the landline in the apartment is jarring. When did we start referring to home phones as landlines?
    But it’s not only that. We do know Theo is 27 when he tells this story and 13 when his mother is killed. But when is NOW? I think the biggest clue is Las Vegas. Without giving too much away the Las Vegas Tartt describes appears in 2008-2009, not before. So I’ve mentally adjusted, but I do find there’s a difference between Goldfinch time and the time we live in. Goldfinch time is blurry and dreamlike, flecked with small bursts of stabbing precision, much like memory, but with the added filter of Tartt’s aesthetic, which for New York, is romantic and sympathetic.

    Hobie- We all should have a Hobie in our lives.

  8. I’ve been avoiding this for fear of spoilers but just finished book 1. Am thoroughly enjoying it (and wondering if I didn’t give the little friend a proper chance: I might go back and re-read it). It is very Secret History in atmosphere – that was also hard to place in time and odd mentions of laptops were jarring – and Theo is indistinguishable in voice, passivity (so far!) and dreaminess to Richard, the narrator of the SH.
    I’m not sure I have much else to say – will crack on with book 2. Loved the descriptions of the bomb aftermath though: unputdownable.

  9. This is my first Tartt, and after 8 hours in a hospital room yesterday as my wife recovered from wisdom tooth extraction, I managed to get a lot of reading done (the wife is fine, btw. A little Walter Matthau at the moment, but fine). Enough to dare to read this post, anyway. I definitely agree that she’s using the bombing in the Met (and it is the Met, isn’t it? Location alone tells you that) as a substitute for 9/11… mostly, I think, because she needs a much more personal tragedy, and sadly the world trade centre bombings would have been central to so many people’s lives. I am strongly reminded, in places, of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a 9/11 novel, but also deals with a young boy’s loss. The Tartt is more literary, accomplished and adult – and I’m enjoying it a whole lot more – but I am hearing echoes of the plot.
    My thoughts on the book so far? Gripping, but so sad. Oh, those abusive and absent fathers and families in general with their casual cruelties. I’ve loved the drawing of characters like Hobie, of course, but also Boris, in all his complicated, messed up glory. Good call on the dogs too, by the way. Loving her work with the dogs.
    I can’t wait to read more.

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