Book Review: “The Goldfinch,” and the Meaning of Life

Tartt, Donna, “The Goldfinch.” Little Brown, New York, 2013


The old story goes that a guy sought the meaning of life. So he had to climb the highest mountain to ask the Great Guru “What is the meaning of life?”

It wasn’t easy climbing the mountain. There were a rock slide, an avalanche, and several mountain lions before, exhausted, he climbed up to the Great Guru. With all the breath he could still muster, he finally got to ask his question, “Oh Great Guru, what is the meaning of life?”

The Guru answered solemnly, “Spinach.”

The guy went berserk. He screamed, “I climbed this high mountain, I faced mountain lions and a rock slide and an avalanche to get up here, and now you tell me that the meaning of life is spinach?”

Distraught, and with tears beginning to form in his old eyes, the Guru said, “You mean it’s not spinach?”


“The Goldfinch” comes highly recommended. Wikipedia says it was a big hit when it first came out in Dutch, and the English version took the Pulitzer prize for 2014. In it, Theo Decker ages from 13 to mid-twenties and interprets the meaning of life as he experiences it, particularly from his love of the fine arts. One particular painting, of a small bird chained to its perch, becomes the axis around which the rest of his experiences revolve.

It’s not the same as climbing a mountain, but it seems like a very very long book to try to figure out Theo’s ideas on the meaning of life, especially because there were so many references to the fine points of fine art of which he seems to know just about everything and I know almost nothing.  I had to look up “aesthete”: es-theet or, esp. British, ees-] noun.

1. a person who has or professes to have refined sensitivity toward the beauties of art or nature.

  1. a person who affects great love of art, music, poetry, etc., and indifference to practical matters.

I decided that Theo, or at least author Donna Tartt, may be an aesthete and I’m not.

In my thinking, an aesthete is someone who would go ga-ga over a painting of a bird for decades, but would walk right by a dozen mockingbirds without looking nor listening. Without all the painted beauty that he describes so exquisitely, life would be pretty meaningless, or at least that’s what Theo seems to think.

I like paintings ok, but real birds are terrific, too. What I really like is everyday living. I like fixing oatmeal in the mornings for my wife. I sing a little song sometime, as I slice the apples and pour on the cinnamon, “Fixin’ breakfast for you!”

My wife has never once complained about my oatmeal. She always eats it. When I brag that I have some special talent and refer to myself grandly as the “Oatmeal King of the South,” she never contradicts me. In fact, she’s told other people that I make really good oatmeal.

So “The Goldfinch” book may be a good way to learn how to comment on some of the fine arts, and maybe it will interest people searching for the meaning of life. But it’s a long uphill climb to find out.

It’s like the guy who climbed up the mountain and was disappointed at the end. I could have told him that the meaning of life is not to be found in “The Goldfinch.” It’s not spinach, either.

It’s oatmeal.

–Gene Lantz

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