“The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” –Albert Camus. Indeed, it binds humans like fate dictates the trajectory of Theo Decker’s life. This is how Donna Tartt starts her novel The Goldfinch.
“…the line of beauty is the line of beauty. It doesn’t matter if it’s been through the Xerox machine a hundred times.” — Hobie
“…dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.”
“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” – Hobie quotes Picasso’s word.
“I suppose it’s ignoble to spend your life caring so much for objects—. Caring too much for objects can destroy you… isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things–that they connect you to some larger beauty?” — Hobie
I was tempted to call the novel a memoir of a mother or how a teenage boy grows up without his mother or “the nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.” Isn’t it true that his mother, dead 14 years ago, comes alive through his memory? On the other hand, with plenty of serious talks from Boris and Hobie on art and life, doesn’t the author try to tell us that it is much more than a memoir or a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman?
The novel starts with Theo Decker, protagonist, trapped in an Amsterdam hotel, after killing two persons. It then quickly flashed back to the death of his mother 14 years ago, the milestone in his life. The Goldfinch, the 1654 Carel Fabritius’ masterpiece, is his possession now after he took it from the museum. For 14 years, he was burdened with the fear over The Goldfinch, fearing that he might get caught and be punished for keeping it.
Just as Theo was settling down at his friend Andy Barbour’s house and trying to recover from the trauma of losing his mother, his father suddenly shows up and takes him away from New York City to Las Vegas, with the intention of swindling him of the money his mother left for him. This triggers a real downward spiral in his life.
With the death of his father in two years, the 15-year-old Theo left Boris, his Vegas friend, went back to New York City, and started a new chapter in his life. At some point, while he is in the antique business with Hobie, Theo’s smartness got Hobie, a father-like figure in his life, “in a jam” when he sells sham antiques as real ones.
When Boris showed up in his life again 12 years later, Theo learned that the painting he has been keeping all these year is a mere copy.
Looking at the events that occurs to him and the people in his life, I am wondering about fate and random chance, wondering how Theo’s life would be if his mother had not died when he was 13 or if his alcoholic father had not snatched him away from Andy Barbour’s house or if his father had not died in two years or if he had not met Boris in Vegas or met Welty or Hobie in New York or if he had known the fact about The Goldfinch.
I can’t help marvel at the interplay of fate, chance, nature and nurture in a person’s life. His mother, Hobie, Boris, his father, Mrs. Barbour, Welty, The Goldfinch, each one of them has played an indispensable role in his life, making him what he is now.
Indeed, there is always something in life that we cannot choose, like our parents and people who cross our path. But there is something within our control, like taking drugs or becoming alcoholic or sell sham antiques, etc.
Goldfinch is a good book in the sense it lingers on in readers’ minds, posing questions, and making them think and wonder, like how much autonomy can we claim in becoming who we are, independent of influences from our parents, events happened to us and people in our lives, etc.?
On the other hand, it is better not to focus on the uncontrollable factors, critical though they are, in order to prevent oneself from falling into a mire of fatalistic thinking.
Main characters in the novel:
Theodore “Theo” Decker, 13-year-old
Welton “Welty” Blackwell, who gave Theo a ring at the museum
Andy Barbour, his school friend, Platt, Kitsey, and Toddy Barbour
James “Hobie” Hobart, Welty’s partner, Theo became Hobie’s antiques store partner
Pippa, a girl Theo is in love with
Larry Decker, Theo’s father
Xandra, Larry Decker’s girl friend
Boris, a cosmopolitan son of a Ukrainian émigré
Popper, Xandra’s neglected Maltese puppy
Lucius Reeve, one of the buyers at Hobie’s store
Tom Cable, Kitsey’s boy friend