Donna Tartt is one of these fascinating (and very fortunate) authors who can write a debut-novel bestseller then keep her readers waiting around ten years for the second and a further eleven for the third, this fascinating novel The Goldfinch. However, her talents were spotted early and her writing was encouraged. Her earlier novels and short stories have won her prizes and literary acclaim. This one is a long book and although I found her detailed, minute-by-minute, day-by-day narration of the central character, Theo Decker’s thoughts and feelings in dramatic and testing circumstances beautifully written and fascinating to read, I will admit to giving a silent cheer when Chapter 9 on page 443 began, “One afternoon eight years later …”
The painting of the title is genuine and by Carel Fabritius (1622-54), a pupil of Rembrandt with a much-admired style of his own, and it did survive an explosion in Delft in 1654 which killed its talented painter, but Tartt’s story is a fiction; a wonderful, creative and evocative fiction that focuses on the maturation of its narrator, Theo Decker (who shares his name with a Fabritius apprentice who died in the Delft explosion.) It is the quality of the description and analysis of that process that makes Tartt’s novel such a compelling read.
An early teenage Theo is in trouble at school, by association with ‘bad’ company, and has a domestic life complicated by his gambling and drinking, wastrel father’s frequent and then total absence. He has a marvellous relationship with his mother who takes the day off work to go with him to school for a conference with the head teacher. Since the appointment is later in the morning they have gone round by a New York art gallery to look at her favourite paintings. Theo spots an attractive red-haired girl around his age in the company of a much older man and, like any red-blooded teenager, tries to keep her in sight and exchange glances. Then, just when he and his mother are temporarily separated, the area near the shop is devastated by a terrorist bomb. Tartt’s narration of the events as experienced by Theo is graphic, emotionally highly charged, and powerful reading. Theo finds himself tending the old man who is clearly dying; and there is no sign of his mother or of the girl. The man thrusts a painting towards him, which is, of course, the ‘Goldfinch’ of the title and entrusts him with a gold ring with the request he deliver it. As the man dies, Theo takes the painting and, somehow, makes his way out of the devastated gallery by a side exit; and the set-up of the novel’s story is complete.
Temporarily fostered by the ‘Park Avenue’ Barbours whose son Andy is his schoolmate, Theo hides the stolen painting and eventually delivers the ring to the old man’s business partner in an antique and restored furniture business. The girl, Pippa, has survived the bomb blast but has been more extensively traumatised than Theo. They feel a bond established from their shared experiences of loss. Social workers and psychiatrists are wickedly well portrayed. They begin to talk in terms of relocating Theo with his maternal grandparents, who are not really keen on this, but, out of the blue, his father turns up again and says he will take his son back with him to Las Vegas, together with his new partner Xandra and as much as he can raise from the proceeds of the sale of his late wife’s effects. Theo manages, somehow, to take the painting with him to Vegas where he meets a new schoolmate, Boris, a feral, Russian-born petty crook and druggie, and forms a bond with him based on their parental neglect. Finally, as his money trouble’s catch up with his gambling father, Theo flees by Greyhound Bus back to New York and takes ‘refuge’ at the antique business.
Shortly after this point in the story when Theo seems to be finding his niche in antiques and restoration, we reach the beginning of Chapter 9. The rest of the book explores his relationships with Hobie, the antique restorer, with the Barbours; mother and daughter; and the reappearing Boris, no longer a petty crook, and the dilemma of what to do with the painting, for the theft of which, were he to confess and return it, he might well be sent to jail for many years.
What with drug-taking and drinking, Theo’s life seems to be going downhill. He has taken advantage of Hobie’s clients’ ignorance and excess of wealth to sell antiques of uncertain provenance and seems to have been found out by a potential blackmailer. Boris tries to help his old friend but might just be making things worse. Theo’s love life is complicated by still being in love with the redhead but now being engaged to Kitsy Barbour.
Since spoilers are forbidden in these blogs, I can only say that matters becoming more exciting than you could have imagined and that Donna Tartt stays completely in control of the narrative and the very credible denouement. I shall certainly read Tartt’s earlier novels now; especially since it might be 2025 before she publishes another!