Mississippi-born writer Donna Tartt told an interviewer that she writes to create a work like the ones she loved as a child—“galloping, gleeful, you-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next.” Her stunning, almost-800-page novel “The Goldfinch” is overflowing with that spirit. With her elaborately constructed story and memorable characters, Tartt plunked me into her vivid settings and surrounded me with her characters. I can’t think of another book that felt so real to me.
When narrator Theo Decker mentions his “predicament” as the story opens in present day, we have a strong taste of irony in his word choice. The “predicament” refers to Theo’s years-long involvement with a Dutch painting (real but used fictionally), The Goldfinch, done by Carel Fabritius in 1654. At the age of 13, Theo and his beloved mother had dashed into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a quick look at some Dutch masters on their way to his private New York City school. A terrorist bomb exploded in that museum wing, and Theo’s mother, along with scores of other people, were killed. Theo crawled out of the wreckage with two things—an engraved ring given to him by a dying man and the small painting, a favorite of his mother.
Theo is lost without his mother. His father had left the two of them a year earlier (with no forwarding address) so the boy moves into the Park Avenue home of the Barbours, the welcoming family of his friend Andy. The Barbours are a cast of memorable characters: Andy is a brilliant but socially inept boy who talks like “one of those computer programs that mimic human response.” Mrs. Barbour, elegant and kind, is “a masterpiece of composure,” and brother Platt is “a champion lacrosse player and a bit of a psychopath.”
The ring Theo was given at the time of the bombing leads him to a downtown New York antique shop where Theo meets Hobie, the business partner of the dead man, who befriends the boy and teaches him all about his trade. Theo begins his new life.
Before long though, Theo is forced to leave Manhattan when his father shows up to cash in on his ex-wife’s money and belongings. He takes Theo back to Las Vegas where he lives with glamorous, young Xandra in a deserted subdivision on the outskirts of town. Theo befriends Boris, a Ukrainian classmate with “the unwholesome wanness of a runaway,” and this new friend becomes a shining beacon to Theo and an unforgettable character to us readers. The story cranks into high gear whenever Boris is involved.
Some episodes involving over-the-top drug use and underworld dealing are hard to read and go on longer than necessary, yet Tartt threads thematic strands through the story that touch the heart — dealing with overwhelming grief, loving the wrong person and finding your place in the world. I can’t say I loved every one of the 771 pages, but I can say there were pages I loved so much they took my breath away.