May 4, 2014

Uborka Book Club: The Goldfinch, Books Two and Three

Here I would put a caveat about spoilers for anyone still reading but, oh dear, why bother? It’s been two months since we last convened on the subject of Donna Tartt’s sprawling novel, you’ve finished it and probably three other books besides. I have an absent note from, I don’t know, FROM ZEUS HIMSELF, OKAY? Only don’t look too closely at it lest it become obvious that I had Stuart forge the signature. Just throw it on the fire. Shut the door. Have a seat. Let us begin. 

When we last left our hero, his father had rather inconveniently walked back in the door just as the Family Barbour welcomed him to join them at their country house in Maine for the summer, and possibly forever. “They’ve grown quite fond of you — Mother, especially. I believe they may want to keep you,” Andy tells Theo at the end of Book One, right before Larry and Xandra with an X step callously back into his life.

Book Two is just a few hundred pages, set in the unfinished housing community where Larry has landed and from where he’s making his dubious money gambling in Vegas. It’s here, under the merciless desert sun, that we meet Boris. O! Boris! Surely I’m not alone in naming him my favorite, but particularly I love what a paradox he is — cheerfully violent but with his own fully realized pirate code, full of love and philosophy but also rage and ignorance, fussily domestic in some ways while destructive to the point of anarchy in others.

Don't tell me you can't see it, just a little bit of the raucous Withnail and I energy in the adolescent madness of Boris and his sidekick Potter?

Don’t tell me you can’t see it, just a little bit of the raucous Withnail and I energy in the adolescent madness of Boris and his sidekick Potter?

Boris immediately bestows upon Theo the nickname “Potter” because of his fish-out-of-water resemblance to Harry Potter — orphanhood foreshadowed here! — and they become life partners in a way that so captures the dizzying magnetic bond of hyperfriendship at that age. (Does anyone else see a young Richard E Grant when they picture Boris? Something about a chest so scrawny it’s concave, and always looking like he needs just one more bath …)

Theo spirals into drugs and booze, at first rather headily and illicitly, but then with a gimlet-eyed escapism that will take us through the rest of the book. And then, with a suddenness that mirrors his mother’s death (although there the similarities end), Theo’s father is dead and the last vestiges of normality for Theo die with him. Having tentatively handed a tiny bit of his heart to his father only to have it, too, extinguished, Theo is pretty much done with Vegas and with his own optimism — he picks up Popchik and skips town with the stoned determination of a refugee.

After crawling back east by bus with the dog in a tote bag, now untethered completely from normal adolescence, Theo does not return to the sumptuous cradle of the Barbours but rather to the Shop-Behind-the-Shop of Hobie’s, who becomes his temporary and then permanent guardian. He trudges through the requirements of adolescence — Stuyvesant, if I recall correctly, as his high school of choice, which makes perfect sense to the New Yorker in me — but they’re all a shadow play for him, because our hero is becoming our antihero.

Here, at the end of Book Three, we see the last moment where Theo teeters on the knife edge of morality, where he stops pretending he’s not keeping the painting forever, obsessively unable to let it go, a golem created out of wood and oil for his protection but also a thumping tell-tale heart under the floorboards, all at the same time. Terrified of discovery, of implicating Hobie, he takes The Goldfinch from another erstwhile, pillow-case-wrapped hiding place and he it in an art and antiques warehouse. He well and truly has stolen it now, hasn’t he?

Some thoughts on Books Two and Three, before we skip ahead eight years to the tumult ahead:

  • I love the thread of sexual tension between Boris and Theo, their adolescent fumbles in the dark otherwise unacknowledged in daylight. I think many obsessive friendships of this age mirror — and sometimes dance across the line of — romantic relationships, as though before the cooling distance of a more defined self settles around us with adulthood, any relationship this intimate could potentially go supernova into something more.
  • Other than the few glimpses of the glittering strip, this is a Vegas far removed from the touristic hedonism associated with Sin City. I have a good friend who grew up in the hard-scrabble outer reaches of Las Vegas where everyone’s a waiter, a gambler, or both, and he said that this was one of my more accurate depictions of his home town he’d read in fiction.
  • Who else picked up on the strumming notes of foreshadowing with what happens to the painting, here in Vegas? I thought there was something weird when Boris doesn’t want Theo to leave, is about to tell him something but then seems to change his mind — but I do love this plotline’s revelation later and how it pitches us into the action of the latter third of the book.
  • In re-reading and re-scanning the transition between Vegas and life with Hobie, it occurred to me that the cataclysmic shock of being unmoored from both parents and any moral compass therein is when begins in earnest Theo’s career as a liar and a dissembler — morality fully burned off during his wild desert nights, having very few fucks to give for anyone or their expectations, owing only a few remaining dashes of yearning towards Pippa, and filial affection for Hobie. So even before he actually becomes a criminal, Theo starts seeing life with a kill-or-be-killed mindset, as something to be survived.
  • Why is Chapter Five called “Badr Al-Dine”?

SO! Start chattering, chattering classes. What did you think of our boomerang sojourn in Vegas, and our Beloved Boris?

[Ed. note: I swear to all the gods of words spoken and written, I will not make you guys wait two more months for the culmination of this Book Club. In fact, I started rushing ahead in my synopsis and evaluation of Book Four, so it’s saved in a draft for next week already inside the shadowy depths of Uborka. Onward!]


8 thoughts on “Uborka Book Club: The Goldfinch, Books Two and Three

  1. I was really enjoying the book up to this point. After this, the feeling of guilt associated with all of Theo’s actions made me feel so uncomfortable tag to had to stop reading. Will finish it someday, but not just yet.

    Clair on May 4, 2014
  2. I was consumed by this book, and it’s in Vegas where it really grabbed me. Boris is such a wonderful character, dangerous, innocent and chaotic. I read this wide-eyed and completely naively, with very little conscious understanding of the foreshadowing that was going on. Some of the writing is so beautifully subtle, and I actually read the passage that acknowledges that Potter and Boris are more than friends more than once just to try and make sense of what Tartt is telling us. It’s wonderfully written (witness how even as unsympathetic a character as Theo’s dad ultimately gets treated sympathetically), and as it goes on, my heart starts to weep for poor, lost, damaged Theo.
    Love Popchik too, and I love the way that the two boys love that little dog.
    I finished this a while ago now, so the details have faded a little… but the book itself has long stayed with me and I was only thinking this morning how I need to read some more of her work (this was my first Tartt)

  3. First thoughts (because I have things to say about Vegas, the return to New York and stuff)

    If I were casting The Goldfinch Adam Driver would be Boris.

    I have no idea about the Badr Al-Dine title and was hoping you would know.

  4. I don’t know if I have anything very intelligent to say and, as observed, it has been sometime and some other books read, since the goldfinch. I loved it very much though, felt wretchedly sad for poor lost Theo. Have forgiven Ms Tartt for the little friend and may even be persuaded to revisit it.
    Yes to Richard E grant. Haven’t yet cast my Theo.

    Lisa on May 4, 2014
  5. Clair, Vegas is definitely a turning point for Theo — as others in this thread say, becoming somewhat irreversibly damaged. I remembered thinking at some point in Book Four, once we’ve leaped forward eight years, that even the best outcome at this point for Theo is probably going to be compromised.

    Asta, I thought of Adam Driver too — in many ways, in fact, he reminds me of Grant! Sort of physically reckless looking, handsome in an ugly way, with an excess of kinetic energy.

    Lisa, I haven’t read LITTLE FRIEND yet! I just finished re-reading THE SECRET HISTORY for the first time since college and had a very different (and more enjoyable) reading experience this time around. I feel like I have to read LF if only for completeness.

  6. Vegas
    My one and only trip to Vegas was made last October, just before I started The Goldfinch. There is no other place I know of that it so wholly dedicated to kitschy excess and pandering illusions aimed at intensifying greed to the point that you will put a week’s pay on 19 black because the blonde waitress walked by carrying a tray of three martinis not four.

    I made the trip more out of curiosity than desire and because a relative had booked one of the Hangover Suites at Ceasars Palace, a room that costs more than I made in a month at my last job. It is so typically Vegas that the Hangover Suite is in fact one of 16 which were created after the movie was made because people were asking is they could stay in the rooms. It is 3000 square feet of ridiculous and hideously awesome.

    If an already fragile soul was to have the last vestiges of morality washed away, this mirage city is the place to do it. I spent most of my week exploring rather than drinking or gambling and it is true- one block off The Strip is another seedier grubbier world. The ghost suburb that Tartt describes really didn’t show up until the bursting housing bubble of 2008, but then as you’ve already pointed out Krissa, Tartt is fuzzy with time. I think it’s deliberate, but it’s jarring when her descriptions of some things are so exactingly detailed on the one hand and then major things( time) and people( Theo) are so vague.


    Everybody loves Boris. I fell in love with Boris in the scene where after Theo witnesses one of the no doubt many beatings Boris suffered from his father, the two get drunk in a playground and are stumbling back to Theo’s house when Borish begins singing a Polish lullaby from his childhood. We can all see him in our minds. I cried.

    Now picture Theo. What does Tartt tell us about him other than the fact that he wears Harry Potter glasses? Nothing. He’s a physical blank. I picture him as a young Jake Gyllenhaal, maybe. He looks however we want him to look.

    Hobie is another great character. I’ve heard and read that Hobie is a cartoon–that there are no real Hobies. He is as real as Boris. Of course he is an exaggeration, this is a work of fiction after all, but they do exist in the world, or did. I haven’t met one in some years but I’ve met a handful of them over the years and they exude grace, humility and kindness. I loved the descriptions of the work in the antiques shop, and Tartt setting out how we value or discredit works of art. What is authentic? Why is something beautiful that was made in 1760, more valuable than something carved and a lovingly assembled from various bits over time?

    Reading Theo’s developing career as an antiques fraudster, I suspect Tartt must have been aware of this. I thought she did a brilliant job of describing this murky world.

    One thing that struck me to this point was the utter awfulness of the fathers, Hobie being the one father-figure exception. The mothers or mother substitutes aren’t much better; they are either indifferent, absent or dead. Is Tartt just a full-on believer in the Philip Larkin philosophy of parenting?

  7. I do not share everyone’s unconditional love for Boris. I love the way Tartt draws him but even he is a cartoon to me; he is only as real as Hobie.

  8. I should make it clear that Boris would be an absolute nightmare of a friend in real life, but as a character? Golden.

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