“Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature – fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
The story is told by Theo Decker- his journey that begins with losing his mother when they visit the Museum of Modern Art which is bombed, how he steals an iconic painting by Fabritius ‘The Goldfinch’ which she talks about fondly just minutes before the explosion; and then his tumble down into a life whose course is puppeteer-ed by this work of art and Theo’s own terribly self-destructive choices.
My momentum of reading was like this- reluctant flipping for the first 100 or so pages, majorly hooked through the middle, dwindling interest towards the just-before-end portion, and a morose magnetic addiction for the last fifty pages.
Donna Tartt is truly an incredibly talented human being. I mean how she managed to capture a coming-of-age story by weaving it through the themes of death, art, endless hope and the loss of it is something I find truly remarkable. I also loved her style of describing people through their actions, choices and mundane rituals and beliefs.
Watching Theo embark on a journey of self-destruction despite being given several second chances filled me with so much anger and sadness. Why why does he pick the clearly wrong choice each time? Does a terrible tragedy such as losing one’s mother justify such irreversible recklessness? Perhaps that’s why I began to lose interest by the 600 or so pages mark, as there seemed to be no possibility of his reform or regret. But then towards the last 100 pages, we get to actually see Theo’s rationale and reflection of the course his life has taken. I went so crazy with my Kindle highlighter in these pages, but the below quote is probably the most accurately wonderful summary of life, and the book itself:
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
But there is a balance of the disturbed essence of Theo’s reality represented by the wonderfully trusting and sweet Hobie, who takes Theo under his tutelage. I found myself asking at several times- Is this guy for real? I guess the world has done a great job in moulding a cynic of me. The descriptions of him the furniture restoration process is very enjoyable, along with the deeper message of the worth of an object being attributed to what someone is willing to pay for it.
While I found Theo’s unrequited love for Pippa endearing, I questioned its foundation. Were a few moments of eye contact in a museum before the blast and some sharing of music over headphones as children sufficient establish such an obsessive depth? Or was his love for her an inexplicable one that stemmed merely from the common tragedy imposed upon their lives? I don’t know, try as I may I just couldn’t completely wrap my head around this bond.
Then there’s the Boris and Theo relationship, which is deeply moving in the middle and thoroughly confusing at the end. How could Theo forgive Boris so easily for stealing something that meant the world and more to him? Yes there is a blind brotherly trust between them borne out of their pathetic circumstances, but doesn’t that make the betrayal worse? Boris himself plays the part of that friend every parent warns their kid to stay away from, and for good reason. He nudges Theo into a companionship with a foundation of booze, drugs and an over callous approach to life. He does have his redeeming moments, my favorite being his advice to Theo on his impending marriage to a woman he has lukewarm feelings for – “Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to live and be happy in the world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.” With these words, Boris proves to us that is the people who know us the best, that have the most capacity to steal our happiness as well.
For me the key question is, how much of Theo’s destiny was shaped by the theft of that painting? Would his life have been a more fulfilling one with responsible choices had he not been obsessed with this work of art? Theo eventually did turn into that shackled bird, invisibly tethered to self-created despair and hopelessness, but in the end redeeming himself with honesty and an effort to wipe the grime-coated slate of his deceptive life clean.
Isn’t there a bit of Theo in each and everyone of us, as we plunge into life with stubborn resolve to do as we please, knowing full well of consequences? Five tequila shots more than our threshold, irreversible words drenched in anger that come lashing out, gambling of time and love. Choice. A word and a conundrum. Part destiny, part fate, part waking up each day and praying for sunny skies.