It's true. I've been procrastinating about this post for weeks, but Donna Tartt's decade-in-the-making, nearly 800-page third novel has that kind of power. Even if "The Goldfinch" isn't a masterpiece, as my friend Rob Weir says it might be, it's a real novel by the fullest definition, immersive and affecting and thought-provoking. There are themes and characters you'll find yourself thinking about - and, apparently, blogging about - weeks later. (Spoilers ahead.)
With the Marathon coming up, I should note that book's inciting incident is a vividly rendered terrorist bombing. In Manhattan, Theo Decker, 13, and his mother duck into the Met to get out of the rain. They go their separate ways in the galleries, Theo covertly pursuing another peek at a pretty red-haired girl. Then a massive explosion leaves him dazed but alive in a Bosch-ian hellscape that his brain can barely process; this is a bravura set piece by Tartt. Frightened and confused, Theo eludes first responders and leaves the museum with an old man's last words ringing in his ears, carrying an artistic treasure under his coat.
The painting is a very real one that Tartt has appropriated: "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius, a protege of Rembrandt who died in a huge gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1654. Most of his works were destroyed too; "The Goldfinch" is one of the few that remains. Tartt obviously chose the painting in part for the power of this backstory, but the image itself is incredibly evocative, with the beautiful bird chained to its perch in the light, stoic.
Theo soldiers on after the bombing, stoic too, or just shut down, especially after the crushing revelation that his mother is not going to meet him at home, as he hoped. She has died at the museum. After too many hours on his own, the authorities find him, and he is taken in by a friend's screwed-up Park Avenue family. Eventually he ends up in the custody of his long-absent, alcoholic father, a grifter and gambler with a girlfriend from hell and a house in a spooky Las Vegas subdivision that has become a foreclosure ghost town. There Theo meets Boris, another latchkey kid, son of a Russian mobster (well, maybe; Boris already knows better than to put all his cards on the table). Boris introduces Theo to the sometimes pleasurable oblivion of booze and drugs, and to new ways of looking at the world, including as a criminal land of opportunity.
Through it all, Theo keeps the painting, stashing it away wherever he lands, rationalizing his continued possession of it while rarely looking at it. Is it a talisman of his survival on that awful day? A sort of compensation, a karmic One Fund settlement? Or is it his link to the lost beauty of a world in which his mother was alive? Or a very valuable ball and chain that could land him in desperate trouble were it discovered?
All of those things and more, as it turns out. Tartt utterly convinces us of psychological rightness of Theo keeping "The Goldfinch," without ever pinning down his motivation too neatly. And the constant presence of the fragile painting – usually just offstage, and often in jeopardy – is also a great narrative trick for keeping us hooked.
Besides the book's length, everyone seems to comment on Tartt's Dickensian plotting - as many readers have noted, Boris is a sort of Artful Dodger - and the author has a whopping, long-fuse surprise or two up her sleeve. Some of her moves take hundreds of pages to pay off. There's a skip forward in time in the middle of the book, when Theo moves back to New York, bringing both the painting and a drug habit with him. He joins the furniture business started by the old man who died on the museum floor, run by the kindly Hobie. The red-haired girl and the Park Avenue family and even Boris return to Theo's life. But there is a reckoning to come, several of them in fact.
Caveats? Shining a light into every other corner of Theo's life, Tartt seems oddly elusive about sex. It's almost tangential in her otherwise probing vision. (In this, "The Goldfinch" compares unfavorably to another very long novel about a troubled adolescent, Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here.") Perhaps it is too late a time on the planet to hope for Dickensian closure in life, but I felt Theo's contacts with Pippa, the red-haired girl, deserved more of an ending, since she's the light he badly wants to see at the end of his life's lonely tunnel. I'm not expecting a happy ending, mind you, but their storyline simply lacks dramatic arc. She's not interested in him that way, and she won't take his expensive present. The end. Well. There is another woman in Theo's life, and when the by-then-racing plot takes him away from their big society wedding near the end of the book, he's numb to it for reasons including all those pills he's taking. But there seems to be very little other fallout from his absence otherwise, which is odd.
I almost had the feeling that Tartt didn't want to share Theo, preferring to spend long hours alone with him in the furniture workshop (that's where I would have started cutting pages, btw) and gobbling Vicodin and the like. But an author's intense bond with her character is hardly something to complain about, and perhaps these are quibbles. This is an intimate portrait of a troubled life shaped by fate and loss. It ranks with Simpson's book and also with John Le Carre's lonely "A Perfect Spy." When Theo was desperate and alone at night in a rented room in Europe, I worried Tartt's book would end the same way as Le Carre's...
What arguably sets "The Goldfinch" on an even higher shelf is Theo's transcendent soliloquoy in the last dozen or so pages, pondering art and time and mortality in highly personal terms, finding meaning in all that has transpired. To echo what Clea Simon wrote in her excellent essay about both book and painting, this is a novel that I sat up late at night reading to get to the end, only to find I wished I had taken more time. Finishing it felt like a loss.