‘The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s third novel in her 20-year career, is not for the casual reader. The sheer size of it in an age of tweets and Tumblr posts is likely to put off some potential buyers. The whispered comparisons to Charles Dickens might scare off a few more. There are those who will not resist comparing it with Tartt’s wildly successful debut novel, “The Secret History.”
But there should be no comparison between “The Goldfinch” and Tartt’s previous novels; this novel is its own rich world. In it, protagonist Theodore Decker’s life is changed forever when a bomb explodes in the Museum of Metropolitan Art and leaves him at age 13 without a mother, but with a small, priceless work of art. For the next 15 years, Theo is tossed, emotionally and physically, between cities and homes while his only constant is this painting, “The Goldfinch,” that is his blessing and his curse. He can’t bear to give it up — it was his mother’s favorite painting — but he knows that it is a serious crime to keep it.
This novel is a veritable journey for reader and protagonist alike, and one made more pleasurable by Tartt’s exquisite eye for the smallest detail. Theo describes his unrequited love interest, Pippa, as “a snowstorm of fascination, from the antique valentines and embroidered Chinese coats she collected to her tiny scented bottles from Neal’s Yard Remedies.” Tartt’s descriptions of Theo’s mother, Theo’s father’s girlfriend Xandra (“not Sandra”) and Theo’s mentor Hobart are spotless. With Theo’s memorable partner-in-crime, Boris, Tartt tiptoes to the edge of caricature but never quite steps over the line.
Reading “The Goldfinch” is like watching a drawn-out but inviting game of hot potato; painting, painting, who’s got the painting? There are a few surprises, but for the most part the novel’s path is clear. Not that it matters, since this isn’t a mystery but more a meditation on the impermanence of life in all its guises: Relationships sour, a parent is here now but gone tomorrow, a Chippendale chair might really be just a good-looking knockoff.
Theo’s mother, in a moment of foreshadowing, explains the still-life painting style of the Dutch masters to him minutes before the bomb detonates. “The painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last — it’s all temporary. Death in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. Maybe you don’t see it at first with all of the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer — there it is.” In “The Goldfinch,” Tartt explores life’s dark corners, but through a veil of masterful prose.
Meganne Fabrega is a writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in New Hampshire.