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Measuring My Life in Donna Tartt Novels

I remember when Donna Tartt’s first novel came out while I was in college, The Secret History. My professor for my Henry James and Virginia Woolf class, a fusty, old man who in some ways did resemble the classics professor of the story, said, “I’m getting The Secret History in my Easter basket.” I had a lot of respect for this professor, and if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

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A few days later, with a fresh paycheck deposited in my bank account, I found a signed copy at Prairie Lights Books and ate it up in a matter of days. Tartt’s novel was a world I understood, where a plain nobody wants to be a somebody and reinvents himself after a big move. That had been the story of my young life at that point, and one I saw often on my college campus, with virginal freshmen coming in off the farm and transforming themselves into wild party animals within a semester. And then the frozen winter landscape where the protagonist of The Secret History can never quite get warm—oh, that was Iowa, all right, where my glasses sometimes stuck to my face when I trucked home from the newspaper in subzero weather. Of course, I didn’t have a murder to contend with or Dionysian rituals taking place at a family manor in the countryside, but it was fun to imagine that I might.

About a decade later, I was launched in my career and Tartt’s second novel came out, The Little Friend. This is four moves after my time in Iowa City, and now I was in New York, where my Midwest roots were sometimes viewed as exotic. I went to see Tartt on her book tour at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, and the space was absolutely packed with people. She read from the first chapter and sang (a part of the story), then took a few questions from the audience. This is standard procedure at a reading, but Tartt’s one of my literary heroes so it all took on so much significance for me. The line was long to get my book signed, and I shifted uncomfortably, wondering what I was going to say. I had to say something. I stood for probably an hour, got my yellow Post-it where the bookstore clerk properly spelled my name and marked the title page for Tartt to sign. And then I was there at the head of the line and it was my turn.

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I’m one of those creepy fans who can barely get a word out I’m so starstruck, and I think it makes authors uncomfortable. I can hear everybody ahead of me telling what sounds like their life story, and then I get up there, all silent like a serial killer. I can remember Neil Gaiman offering me a cookie during a signing, trying to be nice and make conversation, and I could only shake my head. No words would come out of my mouth. Well, I got up there with Donna Tartt, watched her sign my book, and finally, finally, I got some words out—a first for me: “Until next time.” Then I was off with my signed book tucked under my arm. Immediately, I started scolding myself: Doofus, could you have said anything stupider?

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Now it’s eleven years later and Tartt’s third book has come out, The Goldfinch; I’ve been living in New York for almost a third of my life, and I feel pretty confident that I’ll never leave the city. It feeds me. I went to see Tartt read from The Goldfinch at one of her two New York stops (the one that didn’t require money up front). I hadn’t read a word of the new novel. I knew that it revolved around a stolen painting, The Goldfinch by Fabritius, but not much else, and when Tartt took the stage, she said that there were three settings to the book—the Netherlands, New York, and Las Vegas. She first saw the Goldfinch painting when she was in the Netherlands, and by a strange coincidence, it happens to be in New York right now at the Frick. I thought for sure this was a sign and waited until I had read the book all the way through before I went to view the painting.

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On the surface, The Goldfinch seems like a deceptively simple story, yet it captures truths about life that I struggle to understand today. A boy, Theo, grows up in New York, living with his difficult father (until he abandons the family) and artistic mother. One day he loses her in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the city’s beacons, and by chance, he exchanges words with a mortally wounded older man who admires the Goldfinch painting and encourages Theo to take it. He does and, after his mother’s death, arranges to stay with his friend’s Park Avenue family when none of his own kin is too eager to claim him. Eventually Theo’s father does come to get him and relocates the boy to Las Vegas at a McMansion so far outside the city limits that they can’t get garbage service.

Theo’s father supposedly has his drinking problem under control and has taken up with a bartender girlfriend. He contributes to the family with his gambling profits, consulting his Scorpio almanac when he needs help. Theo meets Boris, a worldly kid about his age, whose similarities to the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist are too big to be ignored. He becomes Theo’s lifelong friend whether he wants it or not, introducing him to boozing and drugs. Later, Theo returns to New York and becomes part of a family through the old man who originally convinced him to take the Goldfinch painting.

As Theo matures, he starts thinking about the purpose of art in life through his meditations on the Goldfinch painting, and this particular novel of Tartt’s comes at a time when I’m having such existential ramblings myself: “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I’d felt drowned and extinguished by vastness—not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.”

That Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch is now part of an exhibit showing at the Frick seemed no accident. The Frick is an art collection and museum housed in a really opulent mansion that belonged to one of New York’s richest families. It may not be Park Avenue, but it’s only two streets over, and the parallels between these rich rooms and the decadent setting that Theo finds himself in after his mother’s death pleased me. Getting to view the painting in an atmosphere similar to Theo’s living situation lifted the artwork and story to another dimension, like a grown-up version of a pop-up book or living within a real-life version of the novel.

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The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius

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