In September of 2019, “The Goldfinch,” based on the critically acclaimed novel by Donna Tartt, hit theaters. The film and the book chronicle the life of young Theodore Decker as he navigates adulthood and relationships in the wake of a personal tragedy. Yet, while most of the novel—and the movie—takes place in cosmopolitan New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, its brilliant author hails from the Deep South.
A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel
Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, Tartt was the daughter of a renowned local politician. Exhibiting her flair for writing from a young age, she was published for the first time when she was just 13, as the Mississippi Literary Review chose a sonnet of hers for publication. Tartt went on to study at the University of Mississippi, where one of her professors noticed her talent and persuaded her to transfer to Bennington College. Donna Tartt doesn’t publish often, but her work has always made a splash in the literary world. Her first novel, titled The Secret History, came out in 1992 and has become a cult classic.
— Rooftop Film Club UK (@rooftopfilmclub) November 26, 2014
It took her a decade to perfect her second novel, The Little Friend, which went on to win the WH Smith Literary Award. Another decade later, it was time for The Goldfinch to shine. The 770-odd-page novel became an instant hit and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction in 2014. The Pulitzer Committee praised the book as a haunted, coming-of-age odyssey through contemporary America.
A Terrible Tale of Loss and Coming of Age
The skill and mesmerizing energy with which Tartt composes her novel reveals a sensitivity that is typical of her Southern origins. Her young protagonist sees his life shattered when his mother dies in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Theo, who survives the bombing, decides to take with him a favorite painting of his mother’s, painted by Dutch master Carel Fabritius. The painting is “The Goldfinch,” which gives the novel its name and becomes a symbol that persists as Theo struggles to deal with the aftermath of his loss.
Theo’s efforts to keep the painting both close and a secret run as an undercurrent through the book, along with his fear of being exposed as a thief. The book has been praised for its fast-paced action, with its setting changing from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam. But even though Theo has an affinity for smoking marijuana, he is not there to visit the best Amsterdam coffeeshop— although an attractive travel idea—he is hunting the criminals that got hold of his valuable possession. As his life spirals out of control, Theo will not hesitate to turn everything upside down in order to retrieve his beloved masterpiece. And the consequences are at times disastrous.
The Goldfinch was recently turned into a movie, starring Ansel Elgort as lead character Theo. Even though the film tries to remain as loyal as possible to its source materials, many critics have argued that it hasn’t lived up to the task of conveying the vitality of Tartt’s original work. So, before going to see the movie, it’s worth picking up the book first.