The Goldfinch, published last year, is a long piece of literary fiction. Widely read, it is believed by many to be the worthy successor to the author’s debut novel, The Secret History (1992). Much has been written about the book; there are a jaw-dropping 14,000 reviews of The Goldfinch on Amazon alone. A rich work, it is open to many interpretations, but, plainly said, it is story of two boys from different worlds who become instant close friends, perhaps because of the horrific trauma and loss that afflicted their young lives.
Theo, our narrator, is an upper West Side, private school kid, who loses his mother, a single mom, in a terrorist bombing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ultimately Theo is taken away from his home to live with his drug dependent gambler-father in a vacant, desolate post-economic-disaster suburban development in the desert outside of Las Vegas. Very soon he meets Boris, a Russian-Ukrainian, who lives with his abusive, alcoholic father. They go for days without seeing either of their parents and live by scrounging and stealing.
Much is written about post-traumatic stress disorder, but in The Goldfinch, as we read, we experience, at length, Theo’s long daily struggle against unbidden memories and undeserved, but relentless remorse. But we also see Boris’s lusty response to his own damaged past. Both boys self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. The boys make bad choices again and again, and the reader soon comes to fear for their survival. But a painting, a priceless seventeenth century Dutch masterwork, titled, The Goldfinch, has fallen into Theo’s hands and we are given to wonder if its eternal beauty ultimately saves Theo and Boris from the wreck of their dangerous impulses.
Both Boris and Theo read Russian novels, and it is clear that the author has modeled her narrative on the tortured inner monologues of a Dostoevsky protagonist. With Theo, we spiral down into depression and self-recrimination, while we wonder at his daily efforts to live a normal life, at least as seen by others. Yet, there is hope, and perhaps that hope is symbolized by the little yellow bird in the old painting.
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