Things I Spied V: Books, Part Deux “The Goldfinch”

Long before “The Goldfinch” was a book, it was a painting, a small one, on wood, of a family pet, signed C. Fabritius, 1654. That same year the painter, aged 32 years, was killed in an explosion of the munitions storage facility of Delft. All of his work, except perhaps a dozen paintings, was also destroyed.


I read Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” many many years ago, and my lasting impression was of its interminable length. Nevertheless, intrigued by the bird I started her new book,also “The Goldfinch” and was swept away. “Dickensian” has been used to describe this first person tale, which begins as it mirrors Fabritius’s loss.

Theo Dreher, aged 11, reflexively rescues the painting after an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum, where it is on loan from the Netherlands. While he soon realizes that he should return it, it comes to represent the world he has lost, as he bounces to a friend’s family, then to Las Vegas, back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam.

Michiko Kakutani of The NY Times declared the book “Dickensian” and the characters Theo meets: Hobie, Pippa, Boris, Xandra, the Family Barbour, could with minor tweaks, fit into 19th century London. It is long, and somewhat rambling, but Tartt can create suspense in a scene determining whether Theo’s dog will be thrown off a bus as well one in which drug dealers might murder Theo’s friend.

Throughout, the language is rich, the descriptions unique. The olive green water in the canal, Amsterdam at Christmas, “Bells and garlands, Advent stars in the shop windows,ribbons and gilded walnuts.”

As Theo reaches manhood, he is not always admirable, and at times I found him reprehensible. But, as with a recalcitrant relative or friend, I stuck with him because of our shared backstory, and because I cared.

I saw “The Goldfinch” (that’s the painting) again last week at the Frick, where it was on loan with “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and other Dutch masterworks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. I was mesmerized on both visits. Whether or not the publication of the book was planned in synchrony with the exhibit, the crowds for the little bird were as size able as those
for “The Girl”. And apparently more T-shirts, posters and coffee cups of the Bird were sold than of the Girl.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, but for a good, long read, preferably by the fireside with some Dutch cocoa, you might want to try “The Goldfinch”. I am so glad I did. It is a book that haunts.

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