Lost among the reviews of Donna Tartt's 771-page Pulitzer Prize winning book is its story of a man's metaphysical journey, about his transformation and awakening to truths 'beyond matter'.
The reviewers note Tartt's over-writing (she's not the only one guilty of this), complain about the hackneyed expressions of her teenage characters (true, most boys don't speak like literary writers), and criticize her for not making every sentence sing. Well, as the book's fictional Theo Decker says about the painting's scholars, let them. This book, like the painting itself, touches on metaphysical truths the way art does; in a place "where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime."
The story: Theo Decker is 13 years old when a bomb explodes in a museum he's visiting. In the tumult and trauma, he steals a 17th-c Dutch painting, Fabritius' final masterpiece 'The Goldfinch.' The painting becomes Theo's obsession during his chaotic, rackety road into adulthood. Over the years (and pages), Theo builds a persona, an ego construct that grows dysfunctional by the day. He develops addictions, with a little help from his friend Boris. He becomes ever more compulsive and destructive to the point of near-death in an Amsterdam hotel room. You feel his despair; that there's no way out. I was sure he'd died.
But Amsterdam was Theo's Damascus. It was his ego, that fake persona, that had died. In the final pages, we see his transformation. We see the contrast between an individual controlled by its artificial ego and a person who's let it go, who can now embrace the "mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn't fit into a story, what doesn't have a story."
Instead of drama, he's at peace. Instead of taking everything so personally, he has a calm overview.
It's not rainbows and puppy dogs though. The painting is not of a butterfly, but of a tethered bird with a barely-there chain on its ankle. Theo has no illusions. He has work now to do, his frequent airplane trips a mimicry of the finch fluttering up and down in the same spot. But he transcends the physical, goes beyond, concludes: "That maybe even if we're not always so glad to be here, it's our task to immerse ourselves anyway, wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping our eyes and hearts open."