Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
In 1654, a Dutch painter by the name of Carel Fabritius painted The Goldfinch. As one of Rembrandt’s most gifted pupils, he appeared to be destined for a long, successful career and lasting fame. But on October 12, 1654, a gunpowder factory near his home in Delft exploded destroying a quarter of the city and Fabritius was one of the casualties. Approximately a dozen of his works, including The Goldfinch, survived. This work really exists – I saw it while studying in the Netherlands and was captivated by it. I returned to view it at least ten times before having to leave for England. This work, which has captured the souls of many, is at the heart of Tartt’s latest, engrossing novel.
A teenager, Theo Decker, accompanies his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Fabritius painting is on loan. While they are there, a bomb explodes. Theo’s mother is one of the bomb’s victims, and in the chaos that ensues, he picks up the painting and carries it out of the museum. The story is peopled by many disparate characters: some fascinating, some bizarre, who come in and out of Theo’s life in the next few years. He moves from New York to Las Vegas when his estranged father takes over as guardian, and returns, under desperate circumstances, after his death. And all the while he carries the painting – carefully wrapped and hidden, but always part of his awareness. It is a constant, subtle character, out of sight but never out of mind, which influences Theo’s every decision.
Simply stated, the story tells what happens to Theo and the painting—the longer he hides it, the less able he is to simply return it. The Goldfinch is an absorbing novel, but one of its most interesting aspects is its consideration of what makes art art, or, more prosaically, what makes art timeless. Why does a 350-year-old painting exert such a hold on this young man?
At the very end of The Goldfinch, Theo, now an adult looks back on all that happened to him since the explosion, when his fate and that of Fabritius’s painting were joined. As much as he would like to believe otherwise, he says, “I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.” Long live art and magic!