R29 Book Club: Put A Bird On It

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BookClubslidePhoto: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.
Thanks for joining us for this month's final book club discussion, where we're hashing over the last three chapters of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and talking about feelings — all of the feelings. (Disclaimer: There's a massive spoiler alert ahead, so if you haven't read past page 550, you'll want to log off now.)

First things first: Tartt deserves the biggest virtual high-five ever for the insanely genius twist that happens in Chapter 10, where Boris reveals that he nicked the painting from Theo's locker in high school, and Theo has been obsessively hiding and transporting a carefully wrapped civics textbook for years. I haven't been that caught off guard by a plot twist in years, and it renewed my faith in the book after a somewhat slow, deeply depressing middle section.

I'm not going to delve into the minute details of what transpires in the end of the book, because you've read it. You know by this point that Boris reappears; Amsterdam happens; Theo kills a man and then nearly dies of an illness in a hotel room. As for the painting? It's recovered, stolen again, and finally ends up with the authorities. It's a breathless whirlwind of action that leaves Theo and Boris with a massive bag of cash and (relatively) clear consciences. It's a neat little ending that manages to feel perfectly clean and final, and yet still a little unsettling.

What struck me most about The Goldfinch, after I had taken about a week to process it, is that what Tartt has crafted here is a modern-day cautionary tale. After all, most of Theo's life has been determined by what he thought he had stashed away in a storage unit — which, in reality, was not even a close approximation to what was actually there. When I think about how different Theo's life would have been had he only opened the painting and discovered Boris' sleight-of-hand, it's clear to me that Tartt is making a statement about relying on our own concept (or misconception, in this case) of reality. If we never challenge what we believe to be true — if we never look for proof that we are indeed right in what we believe about the world — we ultimately end up like Theo, when the curtains are drawn back and we realize that life isn't at all the way we thought it was.

One question I'm curious to ask you, fellow readers, is this: Would Theo's life have been better if his mother had not died in the museum bombing? In Part II of Chapter One, Theo surmises that "Things would have turned out better if she had lived." But, I think there's a case to be made (and Theo makes it himself, on page 761) that this life — this reckless existence fueled by crime, drugs, abandonment, and grief — is exactly the life he was supposed to have. His mother's death and Theo's subsequent adolescence with his father reveals, ultimately, that Theo is more like his father than he ever thought — but that's not entirely due to her death. Let's not forget that, before the bombing, Theo was already breaking into summer homes in the Hamptons. So, a less-than-squeaky-clean life shouldn't have been all that surprising, right?

Another major theme in the book revolves around the real versus the fake — whether it's the real Fabritius painting or the "fake" that Theo carts around for years; the dusty antiques at Hobart and Blackwell or Hobie's beautiful, artistic amalgamations that Theo peddles as the real thing. We can even paint Theo's relationships this way: Pippa as the "real" love, and Kitsey as the fake; Theo's dad as the real father, and Hobie as the stand-in. (It seems too cruel to call Hobie a fake outright.) Or is it the other way around, in both instances? Kitsey at least is attainable, although not completely; Pippa is more a figment of Theo's imagination by the end. And, Hobie is certainly more of a real father than Theo's dad. In my opinion, Tartt has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging us to determine which is more valuable, more beautiful — the real or the fake.

So, let's get to the discussion! Aside from the themes I've already mentioned, I'd love to know your thoughts on the book's female characters — are they strong, fully-formed, complex women, or typecast women? Is "be yourself" always the best advice? Is it better, ultimately, to live out the cards you've been dealt, or should you always strive to be better, even if it means denying who you are?