Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch.

NY: Little, Brown, 2013.

I’m a very heavy reader. I get through 120-150 books per year, and have for several decades. So when I say this is one of the absolute best books I’ve read in several years, that means something. Usually, when I begin a really fat book (and this one is 775 pages), I know that, however good it is, the sheer size will become wearing and I’ll have to take a break from it halfway through and read something else for awhile. But that never happened with this one.

As I came to the end of each section, with Theo being dragged off to Vegas, or trying desperately to get back to New York, or packing for Amsterdam, rather than pausing, I just kept going, anxious to find out what was going to happen next.

I found Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, beautifully constructed and haunting in its characterizations. I’ve read it three times in the past twenty years. Her second one, The Little Friend, wasn’t as successful. The characters were somewhat unconvincing, I thought, and the pace tended to plod. Again, that is very definitely not the case this time.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker is the quintessential young Manhattanite, a not-so-great student in a leading private school, and completely familiar with the transit system that will take him from one center of culture to another. He lives alone with his mother (“beloved” is the necessary adjective there) since the disappearance of his overbearing, alcoholic father, but they manage. (In fact, there’s a bit of Catcher in the Rye about him at this age.) And they’re visiting a new exhibition at the Met — Theo would rather be going out to lunch but his mother is an art expert and she insists — when a terrorist’s bomb changes everything forever. Tartt’s evocation of this event and the immediate aftermath, and of Theo’s reaction to it all, is horrific and terrifying and absolutely riveting.

The picture they were there especially to see was the portrait of a captive goldfinch, a canvas no larger than a sheet of notebook paper, painted by the young Dutchman Carl Fabritius in 1654, shortly before his own death in a massive explosion. And there was another visitor to the museum with an interest in the painting: A elderly man, now dying, who was accompanied by a girl Theo’s age, both of whom will reappear as important icons throughout the book. And the shell-shocked Theo, as he tries to crawl out of the smoke and wreckage, finds himself unconsciously also carrying the undamaged painting, which was knocked off the wall by the blast.

The goldfinch will become the center of gravity of his life for the next dozen years, a symbol of all that he has lost but also of all that he has newly found. Because he ends up at the old man’s antique shop in the Village, where he meets Hobie, a talented restorer of furniture, and who becomes the “lifeboat” of his existence. Because all this trauma at such a young age has made Theo a very needy person.

There’s far too much action to try to summarize the details of the plot, but I will say that as you get to know the various new people in Theo’s life, each one of them alone is sufficiently developed to carry an entire novel by themselves. Besides Hobie, the gentle giant from whom Theo learns enough about the world of antiques to become a dealer himself, there’s the Barbour family with whom he finds temporary refuge. In various ways, he almost becomes a Barbour himself. There’s his wastrel father, who drags him away from the only world he has ever known, apparently in an attempt to make things up to him, but he has more personally practical motives, too. And especially, there’s Boris, the Polish-Ukrainian kid whose mining engineer father moves to a new country twice a year. Boris becomes another center of gravity in Theo’s life and he’s one of the most fully realized characters I’ve ever come across in any novel. But even the minor supporting players are very nicely done — the doormen at Theo’s old apartment building, his father’s semi-ditzy girlfriend, his mother’s lawyer (and good friend, as Theo eventually learns) who maintains and protects his trust fund.

The themes Tartt wants you to consider are pretty obvious once you get into the story. Loss, of course, but specifically death and how we deal with it. There are a lot of deaths in the book, most of them shocking, even a little upsetting.

And there’s terrific writing on nearly every page, including scores of great descriptive passages: On first seeing his bare room in his father’s equally bare house on the edge of the desert, Theo notes that “it seemed like the kind of room where a call girl or a stewardess would be murdered on television.” Of his father’s down-market but oddly sexy girlfriend, with whose company he is now saddled, he says, “I might have liked Xandra in other circumstances — which, I guess, is sort of like saying I might have liked the kid who beat me up if he hadn’t beat me up.” Sometimes Theo is so enveloped in despair, even wild nights of drinking and drugs with Boris at the playground lead only to unmanageable hysteria. “There had been nights in the desert where I was so sick with laughter, convulsed and doubled over with aching stomach for hours on end, I would happily have thrown myself in front of a car to make it stop.”

It’s obvious that Tartt takes art seriously. Hobie speaks for the author in describing what art really means, how it affects the individual: “Great paintings — people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads. You can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything. But if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think ‘Oh, I love this picture because it’s universal, because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. ‘Pssst, you. Hey, kid. Yes, you.’

Finally, a warning. When you get to roughly page 600, you will want to find a quiet room with a latch on the door. Clear your calendar and turn off your phone. Because from that point to the supremely satisfying end, everything moves at a dead gallop and you’re not going to want to stop reading for any reason.


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