R29 Book Club: Good Grief, Donna Tartt

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BookClubslidePhoto: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.
Welcome back to R29 Book Club! If you're just joining us, we've tackled the first 200-or-so pages of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, an epic tale of loss, love, and the power of art. Let's get started, shall we?

In the first few pages of the book, we get some powerful insight into our 13-year-old protagonist, Theo Decker, and his current situation. Abandoned by his father, Theo and his mother are scraping by, living frugally but happily, thanks to the lightness and ease created by his father's departure. (This emotional paradox — feelings of abandonment coupled with waves of relief — speaks to anyone who has lived with an alcoholic, myself included.)

But, we also learn that Theo isn't going to be our one-dimensional "good kid" — he's a bright student, but doesn't exactly apply himself at school, and his friendship with Tom Cable involves a disturbing hobby of breaking into empty vacation homes in the Hamptons. In fact, we meet Theo as he's headed to school with his mother to discuss his suspension for a guilt-by-association charge of smoking, even though he was simply standing around while his friend Cable puffed away.

Here, two themes emerge that will follow Theo throughout the book: a sense that he has no control over what happens to him — he's already in the midst of an injustice — and the notion that his inner promise, his potential, will forever be waylaid by his inability to fight for himself. Case in point: He never says to his mother, "But I wasn't the one smoking!" a statement that millions of other kids would have exclaimed even if it wasn't true.

Then, there's Theo's mother, Audrey — a beautiful, enigmatic former catalog model who cherishes her son, nicknaming him "puppy" and regaling him with tales of her early days in New York. She's adored, in turn, by everyone else, from the doormen at her apartment building, to her boss, to strangers she meets in cabs. (More on that later.) She's also an impassioned art aficionado, which is how she and Theo end up in the museum, ostensibly to escape a rain storm but also to take in an exhibition of Northern masterworks — including a small but striking painting, "The Goldfinch," by Carel Fabritius.

We meet Pippa (at least, we have a brush with Pippa) and her grandfather, Welty, in the museum. At least a few reviews have described Pippa as "beautiful," but it's important to note how Theo describes her: "a little strange-looking — nothing at all like the girls I usually got crushes on, cool serious beauties who cast disdainful looks around the hallways and went out with big guys." No, Pippa is far from a conventional beauty — she's thin, awkward, a little plain, but has an other-worldly, birdlike nature that draws Theo to her immediately. Who, as a 13-year-old, didn't have that experience at least once? Spotting a stranger in a foreign setting, and latching on to some elemental quality about him or her that stays with you for weeks — or even a lifetime — after?

Then: tragedy strikes, Theo survives, and Welty sets him on a path that will determine his future. (Can I mention how deeply worried I was, at this point, that Theo probably has a traumatic brain injury and no one seems to notice?) The immediate aftermath of the bombing — the chaos outside, the gruff policemen, Theo's sojourn home to an empty apartment where we know his mother is not, and will never be — leaves us as numb as our hero.

At this point, I'd like to make a hyperbolic blanket statement that you can feel free to disagree with in the comments: No one has ever written about grief as well — as powerfully, or as accurately — as Donna Tartt. She captures so perfectly the sense of losing a loved one — the feeling that time cannot, must not, go forward, or else you really will lose that person forever.

"Every new event — everything I did for the rest of my life — would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every singe day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away."

The passage above gutted me upon reading it. When my own father died, when I was 13, I remember feeling that exact way — that time would be marked not by a forward progression of days, but by how slowly his death receded into the horizon. I know that the only universal thing about grief is that we all feel it, but until this point in my lifetime of reading, no author has ever come as close as Tartt in describing my sense of it.

Cue the parade of pathetic social workers, Theo's constant paranoia over his purloined artwork (which was contagious, at least for me), and his arrival at the Barbour penthouse. In my mind, I picture Mrs. Barbour as a Faye Dunaway-esque character — cool perfection, with only the slightest trace of maternal instinct. (Confession: I have the bad habit of "casting" books as I read them — does anyone else do that?) Here, in the Barbours' ridiculously lavish apartment, Theo gets the slightest relief: meals, movie marathons, adults who are seemingly looking out for him, a surrogate brother (albeit a gloomy, nerdy one).

His encounter with Welty in the museum leads him to Hobart and Blackwell, the musty antique shop, where he meets Hobie and gets another glimpse at the convalescing Pippa. This is the first of only a few precious moments where Theo takes control of his own destiny — he returns Welty's ring to Hobie, earning himself a mentor, friend, and safe haven.

But, it wouldn't be a 771-page novel if the other shoe didn't drop eventually, and so Theo's n'er-do-well father returns, this time with a girlfriend who stands in such stark contrast to Theo's mother that she's practically a caricature. Tartt skillfully allows us to hate these two subconsciously, as they pick through Audrey's belongings like a pair of amorous vultures, dismantling the last remnants of Theo's old life without a second thought. For his part, Theo doesn't take a single memento of his mother's; not a photo, or a book, or her sky-blue cashmere sweater — a telling indication of his crippled emotional state, and a heartbreaking scene for us, as readers, to witness.

We'll break here, as Theo is poised to leave New York and the painting is tucked safely in a suitcase, stashed in his old apartment building and under the watchful eye of his doormen friends. But, before we dive into the next 300 pages, let's reflect on the book so far: Are you losing patience with Theo's inability to speak up for himself? Or, is his willingness to submit to his uncontrollable circumstances actually a sign of maturity? Is Theo becoming, without realizing it, a fatalist?

Weigh in with your comments below, and join us next Friday, March 21, for our second discussion — we'll cover chapters 5 through 9 of Part II. Happy reading!