Here's how extraordinary The Goldfinch is: Even though it's 771 pages long, I wished it were longer.
Donna Tartt is an acclaimed novelist but not a speedy one. Her first book, The Secret History, was published in 1992, her second, The Little Friend, in 2002. The Goldfinch is her third, and more than worth the wait — it's one of the very best works of fiction I've read this year.
After an eerie noir moment in a hotel room in the present, the book's narrator, Theo Decker, takes us back to the day that changed his life fourteen years ago: the day his mother died.
Theo and his mother, Audrey, are a happy mutual admiration society. She is a breezy beauty with a lively intelligence, a Midwesterner who moved to New York on her own as a teenager and is still in love with the city; Theo is her adored only child. His father, a failed actor and unpleasant drunk, had left them not long before, with no forwarding address, and at least in Theo's memory that just made things better.
One April morning when Theo is 13, he and his mom make an impulsive stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of their favorite haunts. She is exhilarated by an exhibition of Dutch Old Masters, but Theo is distracted by a red-haired girl about his age who is viewing the paintings with an elderly man. Theo has just walked away from his mother for another glance at the girl when a bomb goes off.
When he comes to, disoriented, the gallery around him is in ruins and bodies litter the floor, none of them his mother. There is one other conscious person there — the old man, who is dying but begs Theo to take two things with him, a signet ring on the man's hand and a small painting, blasted out of its frame but intact: "Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust."
Tartt's description of the blast's aftermath and of the night Theo spends alone in his family's apartment, frantically trying to find out what happened to his mother, is a shattering tour de force. The boy soon learns what he has lost, and also what he has gained: The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius, "Rembrandt's pupil, Vermeer's teacher," who died in a gunpowder factory explosion in Delft that destroyed his studio and most of his work, as well as much of that Dutch city. (The bomb at the Metropolitan Museum is Tartt's invention, but the painting is real.) That tiny bird is a priceless masterpiece.
Distraught with grief and guilt, Theo tells no one about the painting, hiding it until he can decide what to do. The signet ring is another matter; following the dying man's instructions for it leads Theo to the red-haired girl, whose name is Pippa, and who was grievously injured in the explosion. She is recuperating at the home of the old man, who was her uncle, Welty Blackwell. Caring for her tenderly is Welty's partner, business and personal — James Hobart, known as Hobie. The two ran an antiques business, with Welty handling buying and sales and Hobie working magic as a restorer. Their Greenwich Village townhouse, especially the calm and kindly Hobie's workshop, becomes an enchanted refuge for Theo, even after Pippa is spirited away to Texas by a mean aunt.
But Theo can't live there, even with his father out of the picture. He's placed, at least for the rest of the school year, with the family of a school friend, Andy Barbour. Andy's parents have a brood of handsome blond children, a big Park Avenue apartment with a complement of servants, and considerable resources. Andy is brilliant but odd, and his parents see Theo as a socializing influence. Although he's still nearly paralyzed with sorrow, Theo is hopeful the Barbours might adopt him — until his despicable dad shows up, brassy bartender girlfriend in tow, and whisks him off to Las Vegas.
There he finds himself living in a McMansion in a failed suburb, surrounded by empty houses, so far out in the desert that Domino's doesn't deliver, housed in a bedroom that "seemed like the kind of room where a call girl or a stewardess would be murdered on television." His father is making his living (sort of) as a gambler, and Theo is often unsupervised for days at a time — leaving him to the tender mercies of another schoolmate, Boris Pavlikosky, the wild motherless son of a globetrotting Ukrainian "in mining and exploration" and various sketchy pursuits. At 15, Boris is a thief, a liar, a brawler, a drunk, an enthusiastic abuser of drugs, a hilarious storyteller and a resourceful ally. Loyal as a mastiff and brave as a lion, he will become Theo's best friend — and with a father like Theo's, a boy needs a friend.
The story will take Theo back to New York and eventually to Europe, his strange fate always entangled with those of Hobie and Pippa, the Barbours and Boris — and, carefully hidden except when Theo can't resist a moment in its golden glow, The Goldfinch.
Part bildungsroman, part deft social comedy, part breathless thriller, The Goldfinch echoes with the influence of a couple of great authors, Charles Dickens and J.D. Salinger. With its vividly drawn characters — even the minor ones — and its complex, sometimes coincidence-driven plot, The Goldfinch recalls such books as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Tartt herself slyly alludes to them — one character even calls Boris the Artful Dodger. Like Salinger, Tartt writes mostly about young people and has an uncanny knack for capturing their voices. As the book's narrator, Theo's quick intelligence, observant eye and cynicism hiding a battered heart all recall Holden Caulfield, as does his deep affection for New York City.
But The Goldfinch is no copy; it's the real thing. Tartt's style, lush with description and crackling with great dialogue, is her own. And the story she tells, by turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, terrifying and thrilling, is irresistible.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.