'The Goldfinch': Donna Tartt's art of tragedy

'The Goldfinch' is a stunning literary achievement: a profound story of love and loss, in 780 pages of pure reading pleasure


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The Goldfinch" is the much-anticipated third novel by Donna Tartt, who burst onto the literary scene in 1992 with the extravagantly praised, best-selling "The Secret History," which quickly became a cult classic.

Hailed as a wunderkind, she did not publish again for 10 years, and the reception for her second novel, "The Little Friend," was more restrained. Now, 11 years later, "The Goldfinch" arrives to firmly secure Ms. Tartt's reputation as one of the most talented and emotionally engaging novelists of her generation.

 


"THE GOLDFINCH"
By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown ($30)

Although set in the post-9/11 era, this big book (some 780 pages) is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term, combining a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale with a thrilling suspense story.

It also dares to create characters who wrestle (occasionally with great humor) with the "big issues" of life, including the roles of fate and randomness in our lives, and how each of us must decide what is worth living or dying for.

Here is literary fiction in the most literal sense: the book is larded with literary references and homages to numerous past masters, including Dostoevsky, Proust and Saint-Exupery. But it is the spirit of Dickens that most fully inhabits and propels "The Goldfinch" with characters, plot and narrative technique echoing "Great Expectations," "Oliver Twist," "The Old Curiosity Shop" and "David Copperfield."

Orphans, eccentrics and scoundrels abound, and the plot relies heavily on coincidences, both happy and unhappy. The story is narrated by the introspective Theo Decker, whom we get to know at ages 13 to 16, and then again in his mid-20s. The defining incident of Theo's life, and of the book, is the death of his adored mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Theo, who survives the violent event, is left adrift and alone, his alcoholic father having previously deserted the family, and his sole grandparent uninterested in even seeing him. The description of Theo's grief at his loss is among the saddest and most touching you will ever read.

In the immediate aftermath of the museum bombing, a dying old man had thrust a small painting at Theo, imploring him to save it. The painting is "The Goldfinch," painted by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in 1654, shortly before his death in another explosion that destroyed most of his works.

This painting had been a favorite of Theo's mother, the one that had drawn her to the exhibition. Not surprisingly, Theo finds that he is unable to relinquish this tangible connection to his lost mother. The deceptions and devices necessary to hide the painting, along with his growing "delight and terror of the fetishist," will shape Theo's life, color his relationships, and contribute to his self-destructive reliance on drugs and alcohol.

Things become even more complicated when Theo is removed from the relatively stable environment he enjoyed in the Park Avenue home of a wealthy school friend, forced to join his gambler father in the desolate outskirts of post-boom Las Vegas. The father's motives for claiming his son are transparent, especially to the protective family solicitor, with the wonderfully Dickensian name of Bracegirdle.

The bleakness of life in Las Vegas is redeemed by Theo's friendship with a classmate, the Ukrainian-born Boris Pavlikovsky, whose own difficult life has not dampened his enthusiasms, and only sharpened his survival skills.

Boris, a brilliant picaresque character, brings balance and humor to the relationship with the still-grieving Theo. In retrospect, Boris sums up their alcohol-and-opiate-fueled time in Las Vegas with, "I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It's different."

*

Ms. Tartt has a remarkable gift for plumbing and describing the interior lives and (anti)social behaviors of these young people.

While the novel is cerebral and erudite, the key characteristic that will keep you reading is its enormous heart, the evident affection and tenderness the author feels for her characters, such that the reader cannot help but care about them as well.

Theo eventually gets back to New York, where he is taken under the wing of James Hobart, who had been partners with the old man who entrusted the painting to Theo. "Hobie" brings the young Theo into the business, a dusty shop that restores and sells antique furniture and other curiosities. He serves as a moral touchstone, and a rare source of unfaltering kindness.

The young adult Theo reconnects with Boris, and together they make a number of bad choices, which lead them to the dangerous underworld of stolen art. A shootout in Amsterdam will leave you breathless. There are a couple of romantic plot lines, but the most compelling relationship, by far, is the friendship between Theo and Boris. You will remember these indelible characters for a long time.

Theo's ruminations about the meaning and importance of art and beauty would indicate that the author has spent as much time in museums as in libraries. It is fitting that a book that argues so persuasively for the transformative power of great art should itself serve as the best illustration and proof of that premise.

 


Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (eweiner100@gmail.com).

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