Book Club Questions: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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 combines vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate. 

After the disappointment of Death Comes to Pemberley, we figured we’d head back to Donna Tartt whose The Secret History we had liked so well. Also, our 2015 reading challenge had a Pulitzer prize category, so this book took care of that. I would say our reactions to The Goldfinch were a little mixed – mine more forceful and in some ways negative. Personally, I felt like this book missed a lot of opportunities to become a truly meaningful and thought-provoking read, but my friend and I did not see entirely eye-to-eye on that. (Having different opinions is, of course, the point of having book club – so if you fucking love this book, good on you, and I hope you have a friend who has a differing point of view, with whom you can good-naturedly argue over a cup of tea.) This book also prompted an interesting discussion of the Pulitzer prize and whether it means anything at all as a mark of a book’s quality or that book’s representation of American literature. We certainly had a great time talking about The Goldfinch, and if you’re interested in reading it, hopefully the same will be true for you!

Discussion questions below the cut!

The Pulitzer Prize for fiction recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. What do you think qualified this book for the Pulitzer? Take a look at other books that have been winners or final nominees. What purpose do you think the Pulitzer serves, if any?

Having now read two books by Donna Tartt, what are some distinctive features of her writing that you see in both books? What marks her style as an author?

This book was very lengthy. Do you feel all of its length was justified or should it have been compressed at points? (Compare it to Tartt’s The Secret History, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, or other lengthy-and-artistic books if you are having trouble deciding.)

Does this book remind you of any other books you’ve read? In what ways?

Secrets run throughout this novel – try and list just some of them. Are they destructive or salvaging forces in characters’ lives?

Boris remarks to Theo, “And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do—? Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple.” Do you feel more like Boris or more like Theo in your appraisal of the world and the people in it? Who would you like to be more like (sans the abundant drug use and criminal undertakings)?

A great deal of this book considers the what ifs and if onlys that come with thoroughly unpredictable disasters – as well as with predictable ones, as seen in the case of Theo’s father and Theo’s own shady business practices. Consider this in relation to the following quote:

We looked at each other. And it occurred to me that despite his faults, which were numerous and spectacular, the reason I’d liked Boris and felt happy around him from almost the moment I’d met him was that he was never afraid. You didn’t meet many people who moved freely through the world with such a vigorous contempt for it and at the same time such oddball and unthwartable faith in what, in childhood, he had liked to call “the Planet of Earth.”

In light of this quote, what do you think Tartt is trying to say about “fate”? Do you agree with her point of view?

What does the painting The Goldfinch represent in this novel? What does the goldfinch itself represent?

Certain types of visual art have only one original – which, once destroyed, is gone forever. Compare to digital artwork or literature, where infinite copies can be made. Compare also to music or drama, where one version may be lost but the potential for other versions remains. In what way does the irreplaceable nature of the painting feature in this novel that would not be served in the same way by other art forms?

For fun, what are some works of visual art that have affected you deeply? Do you find yourself more easily affected by copies of artwork (when you can study them at length and at your leisure) or by the original artwork itself (when you see it for the first time in a museum)?

Theo talks about loving objects more than people the majority of the time. Is it immoral to love an object – such as a painting, a piece of music, a piece of clothing? Often we say “people are more important than things” – and hopefully we think this way most of the time. But we could easily donate every extra dollar we earn and every spare hour of our time to helping other human beings, and we don’t. We spend money and spend time on art – whether it’s every day art or once-in-a-lifetime art. How do you reconcile these facts?

Theo spends a great deal of time numbing himself to emotion – but then admires such emotion in Boris and despises Kitsey’s lack of emotion. Given that art is meant to inspire emotion, what do you think this is saying?

The conclusion of the novel alternates between Theo’s summary and flashbacks to Theo and Boris in Antwerp. Why Boris? Why not Pippa? Or Hobie? On a related note, do you think Theo’s and Boris’s relationship was dealt with in a satisfying way? Did you expect more or did you feel there was enough?

Theo sums up what the novel is trying to say in the last few pages of the book. How do you feel about this ending? Was it too blatant or was it appropriate to the tone of the novel?

Random Question: Every time Theo considers voicing overwhelming affection in the first part of the book, he considers it to be “too gay.” A timeless and wonderful Tumblr post is the straight people emotions post. Do you think there are ways in which homosexuality has been coded to equal open expression of emotion and affection? It seems odd to think so, considering the state of gay rights in this country, but the language used in The Goldfinch might be interpreted as indicating this to be so. How is Theo’s use of the phrase coded, given his plausible repressed bisexuality and his male gender?

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