My favorite books are always surprise books, and by surprise, I mean books I choose on a whim from a bookseller’s shelf. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve done that. Often I choose books by authors I love, or ones I recognize, or others I’ve heard about in reviews or from friends. I picked up The Goldfinch before I’d heard the hype, and although it sat on my bookshelf for a few weeks before I found the time to read it, I was not disappointed. I read recently that Donna Tartt spends about 10 years writing each of her books. Having read The Goldfinch I can say that they were 10 years well spent.
While the novel is certainly hefty at 773 pages (the longest I’ve probably read since Harry Potter), the detail is stunningly vivid and heart-wrenchingly real. The novel begins as Theo Decker lays feverish from narcotics in a hotel room in Amsterdam, afraid to leave or call for help. In his feverish haze, he has a brief dream about his mother, who died 14 years before.
On a day of heavy rain in New York City as he and his mother set off to meet school officials regarding his recent suspension from school, Theo and his mother step into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to avoid the inclement weather. As they browse through his mother’s favorite paintings, the two are caught in a terrorist bombing. Many people are killed in the attack. Theo’s mother is one of them.
After following the instructions of a dying old man beside him, Theo steals a painting on his way out of the museum after the terrorist attack — Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch.
Alone and determined to avoid being taken into custody by child services, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on city streets. He is entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother, a painting of the goldfinch that eventually draws Theo into the art underworld.
Although Theo grows up, Audrey Decker rarely leaves his mind, and Tartt captures the intensity of his grief and loss with striking clarity. “I had fallen off the map,” Theo says. “The disorientation of being in the wrong apartment, with the wrong family, . . . groggy and punch-drunk, weepy almost. . . . I kept thinking I’ve got to go home and then, for the millionth time, I can’t.”
As Theo and the stolen painting drift from one temporary family to another, he considers each family’s eccentricities and characters with careful rumination. Much like Tartt herself, Theo has an attention for understanding the vulnerability of being human.
His adventures lead him through Las Vegas with his deadbeat dad, brushes with the Russian mob, unrequited love, and excessive drug use. Yet, somehow, by following the mysterious instructions of the dying old man in the Met, Theo ends up in an antique store. There, in the company an absent-minded restorer named Hobie, who becomes his guardian, Theo regains his sense of love and appreciation.
Tartt’s salient phrases remind us, however, that Theo can never be entirely whole again. A shadow of grief lingers over his very existence. Theo says, “Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”
Like the goldfinch, Theo is caught, perpetually yearning for the mother he lost in the museum on that fateful day. His consistent sense of loss and loneliness serves as a constant reminder of “the writhing loneliness of life.”
The stolen work is his prize and burden. “The painting,” he observes, “was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.” It is art, after all, that ultimately allows Theo to overcome “the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.”
When I was little, my mother would always make “bird’s tongue soup”— a flavorful blend of lemon, chicken and orzo that we often ate on trips to visit relatives in Egypt. To this day it reminds me of her. As I read The Goldfinch, I kept thinking back to the first few pages where Theo reminisces about his mother, describing his admiration and love with bittersweet intensity. It immediately brought me back to this recipe. This soup is an ode to your mother. She is beautiful, smart, and talented, and losing her would change your life forever.
- 1 cup orzo
- 1 chicken breast
- ½ Vidalia onion
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 2-3 cloves
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1 whole lemon or lime
- Parsley or cilantro
- Olive oil
Set a pot of water to boil.
In a pan, sauté the chicken breast in olive oil with the onion, salt and pepper, cumin, and chili powder.
When the chicken and onion release their juices, add them to the boiling water, along with the bay leaves, cloves, curry powder, cumin powder.
Add more salt, pepper and other spices to taste.
Squeeze the entire lemon into the mixture and add a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Allow the broth to boil until the chicken is cooked through and the broth flavorful.
Add the orzo. Allow the broth to boil until the orzo is cooked through.
Serve in individual boils. Garnish with parsley or cilantro.
Note: You can choose to create the chicken stock/broth by boiling a whole chicken with the spices and onion. You can also choose to add some carrots, zucchini, or other vegetables to the soup in order to add some color if desired.