Donna Tartt, 2013
Little, Brown & Co.
Winner, 2014 Pulitzer Prize
Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present day America and a drama of enthralling force and acuity.
It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love—and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It's a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—December 23, 1963
• Where—Greenwood, Mississippi, USA
• Education—B.A., Bennington College
• Awards—WH Smith Literary Award
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
Donna Tartt is an American writer and author of the novels The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002), and The Goldfinch (2013). She won the WH Smith Literary Award for The Little Friend in 2003.
Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, and raised in the nearby town of Grenada.
Enrolling in the University of Mississippi in 1981, her writing caught the attention of Willie Morris while she was a freshman. Following a recommendation from Morris, Barry Hannah, then an Ole Miss Writer-in-Residence, admitted eighteen-year-old Tartt into his graduate short story course. "She was deeply literary," says Hannah. "Just a rare genius, really. A literary star."
Following the suggestion of Morris and others, she transferred to Bennington College in 1982, where she was friends with fellow students Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt, and Jonathan Lethem, and studying classics with Claude Fredericks. She dated Ellis for a while after sharing works in progress, her own The Secret History and Ellis's Less Than Zero.
• Secret History
Tartt began writing her first novel, originally titled "The God of Illusions" and later published as The Secret History, during her second year at Bennington. She graduated from Bennington in 1986. After Ellis recommended her work to literary agent Amanda Urban, The Secret History was published in 1992, and sold out its original print-run of 75,000 copies, becoming a bestseller. It has been translated into 24 languages.
The Secret History is set at a fictional college and concerns a close-knit group of six students and their professor of classics. The students embark upon a secretive plan to stage a bacchanal. The narrator reflects on a variety of circumstances that lead ultimately to murder within the group.
The murder, the location and the perpetrators are revealed in the opening pages, upending the familiar framework and accepted conventions of the murder mystery genre. Critic A.O. Scott labelled it "a murder mystery in reverse." The book was wrapped in a transparent acetate book jacket, a retro design by Barbara De Wilde and Chip Kidd. According to Kidd, "The following season acetate jackets sprang up in bookstores like mushrooms on a murdered tree."
• The Little Friend
Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, was published in October 2002. It is a mystery centered on a young girl living in the American South in the late 20th century. Her implicit anxieties about the long-unexplained death of her brother and the dynamics of her extended family are a strong focus, as are the contrasting lifestyles and customs of small-town Southerners.
• The Goldfinch
Tartt's long-awaited third novel, The Goldfinch, was published in 2013. The plot centers on a a young boy in New York City whose mother is killed in an accident. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on the city streets. He becomes enthralled by a small, mysteriously captivating painting of a goldfinch, which reminds him of his mother...and which soon draws him into the art underworld. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/14/13.)
[D]azzling.... Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius’s [goldfinch] the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.... It’s a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns—how she can tackle the sort of big, philosophical questions addressed by the Russian masters even as she’s giving us a palpable sense, say, of what it’s like to be perilously high on medical-grade painkillers, or a lesson in distinguishing real antiques from fakes.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
[A] rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.... The Goldfinch is a triumph with a brave theme running through it: art may addict, but art also saves us from “the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.” Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.
Stephen King - New York Times Book Review
[A]n explosion at the Metropolitan Museum...kills narrator Theo Decker’s beloved mother and results in his unlikely possession of a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Shootouts...play parts in the ensuing life of the painting in Theo’s care.... Some sentences are clunky ...metaphors are repetitive..., and plot points are overly coincidental (as if inspired by TV), but there’s a bewitching urgency to the narration.... Theo is magnetic, perhaps because of his well-meaning criminality. The Goldfinch is a pleasure to read; with more economy to the brushstrokes, it might have been great.
In Tartt's much-anticipated latest, following 1992's The Secret History and 2002's The Little Friend, young Theo survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, he lives with a friend's family in New York, where his obsession with a small painting that reminds him of his mother leads him to the art underworld.
(Starred review.) Drenched in sensory detail, infused with Theo's churning thoughts and feelings, sparked by nimble dialogue, and propelled by escalating cosmic angst and thriller action, Tartt's trenchant, defiant, engrossing, and rocketing novel conducts a grand inquiry into the mystery and sorrow of survival, beauty and obsession, and the promise of art.
(Starred review.) A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.... Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother...[is killed]. Tartt's narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes.... The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and [plot points] a little too neat... Yet it all works.... The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters.... A standout--and well worth the wait.
Questions by LitLovers
1. Donna Tartt has said that the Goldfinch painting was the "guiding spirit" of the book. How so—what do you think she meant? What—or what all—does the painting represent in the novel?
2. David Copperfield famously says in the first line of Dickens's book,
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will beheld by anybody else, these pages must show.
Because of the many comparisons made between Dickens's work and The Goldfinch, that same question could rightfully be asked by Theo Decker. What do you think—is Theo the "hero" of his own life? What, in fact, does it mean to be the "hero" of a novel?
3. Tartt has said that "reading's no good unless it's fun."
The one quality I look for in books (and it's very hard to find), but I love that childhood quality of gleeful, greedy reading, can't-get-enough-of-it, what's-happening-to-these-people, the breathless kind of turning of the pages. That's what I want in a book.
In other words, a good book should propel readers from page to page, in part because they care about the characters. Has Tartt accomplished that in The Goldfinch? Did you find yourself rapidly turning the pages to find find out what happens to the characters? Does the story engage you? And do you care about the characters? If so, which ones?
4. How convincingly does Tartt write about Theo's grief and his survival guilt? Talk about the ways Theo manifests the depth of his loss and his sense of desolation?
5. What do you think of Andy's family: especially Andy himself and Mrs. Barbour? Are we meant to like the family? Is Mrs. Barbour pleased or resentful about having to take Theo in. What about the family as it appears later in the book when Theo re-enters its life? Were you surprised at Mrs. Barbour's reaction to seeing Theo again?
6. Talk about the ways in which the numerous adults at his school try—to no avail, as it turns out—to help Theo work through his grief. If you were one of the grown-ups in Theo's life, what would you do or say differently to him. Is there anything that can be said?
7. Many reviewers have remarked on Boris as the most inventive and vividly portrayed character in the book. How do you feel? Are you as taken with him as both Theo and book reviewers are? Talk about his influence over Theo—was it for better for worse?
8. Readers are obviously meant to find Theo's father negligent and irresponsible, a reprobate. Are you able to identify any redeeming quality in him? What about his girlfriend?
9. Talk about Hobie and how Tartt uses his wood working and restoration as a symbol of his relationship to Theo. How does Theo disappoint him...and why? Theo fears he will, or already has, become like his father. Has he?
10. Tartt asks us to consider whether or not our world is orderly, whether events follow a pattern (which could indicate an underlying meaning), or whether everything that happens is simply random—like the explosion that killed Theo's mother. What does Theo's father believe...and what does Theo believe? Do Theo's views by the end of the story?
11. The book also ponders beauty and art. Why is art so important to the human soul? What are its consolations...and what are its dangers? In what ways can we allow ourselves to be trapped by art or beauty? And HOW does this relate to the Goldfinch, the painting at the heart of this story— a painting of a bird chained to its perch and a painting that Theo clings to for 14 years.
12. What do you think the future holds for Theo? Why do you think Tartt left the book's conclusion open as to whether he will end up with Pippa or Kitsy?
13. If you were to cut portions of the book, where would you make those cuts? *
14. If Tartt were to write a sequel of 700+ pages, would you read it? *
(* Thanks to Sally of Houston, Texas, who sent in the last two questions. All other questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online of off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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