After devouring her 1992 novel The Secret History and eagerly skimming through her second publication The Little Friend in 2002, I was determined to score a true Tarttian hat-trick: by tackling The Goldfinch. Upon first hearing of its behemoth number of pages (771 to be exact), I had not cared much about looking into its plot or context. This being Tartt’s longest novel to date, I felt inspired enough to dive right in. However, I can confidently say that I now consider The Goldfinch my all-time favourite novel, and that it alone encapsulates the true essence of Tartt’s immense artistic talent and contribution to the literary world. 

Tartt’s novel follows a 13-year-old Theodore (Theo) Decker into his young adulthood through the trials of losing his mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York. Following the attack, Theo is temporarily housed with the family of one of his primary school friends – Andrew “Andy” Barbour. After recovering from the initial stages of shock and grief alongside the support of Andy and his mother, Mrs. Samantha Barbour, the rug is again pulled from under Theo’s feet as he is sent to live with his estranged father in Las Vegas, Nevada. After countless instances of betrayal, terror, and short bursts of bravery, Theo then finds himself back in Manhattan to continue his adult life. This shift of dynamics between members of Theo’s past life and plausible future all spiral together, concocting the perplexing emotions that emerge while Theo attempts to settle into adolescence. 

While the novel is scattered with the positive reveries of happier times in Theo’s journey of growing up, it is no doubt a testament of his struggles. He grapples with an understanding of progressive and destructive behaviours within himself and those around him — I would say that this turmoil is the core and message of The Goldfinch. Tartt touches on the void that depression can imprint at an early age alongside mentions of substance abuse and, for Theo, genetic predispositions to them – especially tackling growing into the habits of your parents, for better or worse.

A large part of the plot revolves around Theo’s friendship with Boris Pavlikovsky, a vivacious and boldly mesmerising classmate he meets during his stint in Las Vegas. Through various stolen beers, secret swigs of vodka, and shared cigarette butts (into eventual experimentation with Vicodin and LSD, which both play a part in Theo’s dependency on substances later in his life), the naivety of both boys’ shared traumatic childhood experiences (casually discussed over laps in the pool, Peter Lorre films, or long walks through desert heat back home from the school bus stop) sustains the foundation for their relationship. Tartt combines a unique approach to the simplicities of juvenile camaraderie with exceptionally personal touches of growing pains and anguish that are left unresolved to surface in both Theo and Boris’s adulthoods. 

Tartt webs together Theo’s vulnerability by means of multifaceted lenses: through an unrequited love story starring Pippa — a young woman who happened to also share a loss with Theo through her unfortunate presence at the Met bombing — to the void which settles where Theo’s relationship with his father should have bloomed. A lingering sense of self-loathing, untapped academic potential, and an imminent fear of failure all envelope Theo’s internal turmoil and seep through his time in grade school, an uneventful couple of semesters at New York University, and his ultimate position running a business in antiques. 

Regardless of how far Theo has come towards an understanding of himself and his “purpose”, there is still a seemingly invisible chain preventing him from the liberating feeling of allowing himself to be loved and that of forgiveness — towards himself and those around him. Perhaps this alludes to Fabritius’s painting from which the novel draws its name – the faint line of a metal chain preventing the goldfinch from doing what it very well was created to do: fly far away from any restraints.

Contrary to my initial remark, I will not be one of the many who state that this novel is far too long for its own good — solely because I believe the advancement of emotional development justifies Tartt’s formatting. Suppose you do not enjoy bits of philosophical jargon or contemplating through the morals of various characters; in that case, you might feel bogged down by Tartt’s prose. I found these characteristics essential to comprehend the passage of time fully and, in turn, create the bond that I as a reader shared with Theo and the many characters that entered his life. There were even instances in which I had to physically set the book down to look into the hidden camera stationed in my room (à la The Office) as I could not possibly comprehend how Tartt had somehow ghostwritten my adolescent emotions, family dynamics, and overall perception of life so similar to Theo’s (minus the usage of illicit substances and impending spirals of doom). 

I couldn’t tell if it was because we both grew up in the constant commotion of New York City and eventually moved out west to more “rural” plains (albeit short-lived) or if it was due to the introverted tendencies we shared, but I felt synced to Theo’s desire to understand, at a swift pace, how the abundance of people around him worked, lived, and existed without ever having known them explicitly. Having moved numerous times as a child, Theo’s disposition validated my innate need to feel a connection with the rapidly changing settings around me and to aid in serving as a reminder that I am not always as entirely alone as I might feel. 

I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats. Often I saw interesting looking people on the street and thought about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up stories about them on the subway or the crosstown bus.

I especially enjoyed how the book serves as an ode to the city of New York and to classic pillars of literature. Whenever I spend time apart from the city, I, too, find myself appreciating more of the simplicities of the past. I reminisce about the seemingly endless avenues and warm familiarity of humming corner bodegas, the quaint smiles of white-gloved doormen, and the wafting scent of warm candied nuts that lingers above the air in Central Park. 

It was the first time I’d been anywhere near Sutton Place since returning to New York and it was like falling back in a friendly old dream, crossfade between past and present, pocket texture of the sidewalks and even the same old cracks I’d always jumped over when I was running home, leaning in, imagining myself in an airplane, tilt of an airplane’ s wings, I’m coming in, that final stretch, strafing in fast towards home— lots of the same places still in business, the deli, the Greek diner, the wine shop, all the forgotten neighborhood faces muddling through my mind, Sal the florist and Mrs. Battaglina from the Italian restaurant and Vinnie from the dry cleaner’s with his tape measure around his neck, down on his knees pinning up my mother’s skirt.

Tartt’s admiration for Charles Dickens shines through the novel as we see bits of Theo’s predicaments mirroring those of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations (with Pippa perhaps derived from Pip). She also incorporates themes from an angsty young Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s iconic prominence from the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

I could not have discovered this novel at a better time in my life. Tartt allows the reader to ruminate in a satisfyingly real world while also serving imaginary wonder. The Goldfinch is one of the pinnacles of my experiences growing up, something that reflects on my journey of self-determination, heartbreak, triumph, and the unique relationships that have carried me above all else.