“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 771 pages, $30)
Readers of Donna Tartt’s two best-selling novels, “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend,” are familiar with the author’s agile storytelling skills and ability to produce breathless suspense and rich psychological portraits. Eleven years after the publication of “The Little Friend,” Tartt returns with “The Goldfinch,” another equally impressive narrative of memorable characters and symphonic suspense.
In this novel’s opening pages, the reader meets 13-year-old Theodore Decker. He is in trouble – a suspension for smoking on school property along with multiple other infractions – and he and his beloved mother, Audrey, have been called to the school for a conference. In order to kill time, Theo and Audrey venture into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to dodge a downpour and take in an exhibition.
There, his mother is transfixed by one of her favorite paintings, “The Goldfinch,” a still-life masterpiece by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s most talented students, in 1654. The reader quickly learns that the artist tragically died at age 32 when an explosion was set off in Delft and all of his paintings were destroyed except the brilliant work of the small migratory bird.
History seemingly repeats itself when a terrorist explosion is ignited within the storied walls of the museum. Before the chaos ensues, Theo catches sight of a teenage girl and her grandfather – and then attempts to save the elderly man during the bewildered aftermath.
“The old man – with a blank look on his face – stumbled sideways,” writes Tartt. “His outstretched arm – knotty fingers spread – is the last thing I remember seeing. At almost exactly the same moment there was a black flash, with debris sweeping and twisting around me, and a roar of hot wind slammed into me and threw me across the room. And that was the last thing I knew for a while.”
Theo manages to escape the museum with the Fabritius painting and an antique ring given to him by the dying man. These two objects – and the death of his mother – indelibly shape the trajectory of the young man’s life. Because of his father’s unexplained disappearance before the tragedy, Theo begins to live something of an Oliver Twist existence, shuffling from the Barbours, the family of a longtime schoolmate who reside in a luxury apartment on Park Avenue, and Hobie (short for Hobart), who oversees the dusty antiques store and workshop Hobart and Blackwell on West 10th Street in the Village.
One of the joys of this entertaining novel is Tartt’s authentic, timeless descriptions of New York City in all of its distinct beauty and loneliness – a favorite bench of Theo and his mother’s at the Pond (the fabled one that Holden Caulfield visits in “The Catcher in the Rye”), the bus rides down Fifth Avenue, the animated doormen of various apartment buildings, the intimate streets of the Village and many points in between.
Throughout the rest of this expansive novel, the reader follows Theo through a 14-year odyssey guided by tremendous loss and grief, all the while the legendary painting providing something of a rudder to his adventures. By Part 2 of this tome, Theo is unexpectedly ferried to Las Vegas by his broken-down, deserter father and his drug-addled girlfriend, so aptly named Xandra.
Here, the reader meets Theo’s eventual partner in crime, Boris, an exuberant, resilient character who moves through the novel like a careening tornado. Given the lack of parental supervision, much of the young men’s experiences of Las Vegas and its surrounding desert are warped by a relentless consumption of drugs and alcohol. More twisted crimes and chaos occur – and land Theo back in New York, working with Hobie at the antiques shop on 10th Street.
In the novel’s home stretch, Tartt takes the reader on something of a wild international ride, but the melodrama never sends this ambitious narrative off the rails. Instead, under the assured command of the author’s sturdy prose, the reader holds on and is taken deep into the downtrodden soul of Theo and the unpleasant truths he must face.
At a moment where the narrator stumbles out of a restaurant not far from the Holland Tunnel, Tartt writes: “There was a great, seductive loneliness in the hum, a summons almost, like the call of the sea, and for the first time I understood the impulse that had driven my dad to cash out his bank account, pick up his shirts from the cleaners, gas up the car, and leave town without a word. Sunbaked highways, twirled dials on the radio, grain silos and exhaust fumes, vast tracts of land unrolling like a secret vice.”
During one of the many memorable scenes in the shop on 10th Street, Hobie says to Theo: “And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one or another?”
With this extraordinary novel, Tartt achieves this creative ideal – connecting the reader to a “larger beauty” and opening up the meaning of what it means to grieve, survive and recover to varying degrees. Clocking in at 771 pages, “The Goldfinch” requires commitment from the reader, but it is a commitment that is well rewarded. The reader is swept into an aria of sorts about a lost childhood and a lost mother and a lost painting. “The Goldfinch” sings, page after page.