Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Despite, or perhaps because of the sense of magic that pervades the novel, even in its less velvety scenes, there are moments when the book, with all its spectacle and temporal shifts and long explanations of furniture restoration, feels slightly flabby. For a novelist whose debut work was so precisely crafted, and whose second, though hefty, was also superbly polished, it’s a bit surprising how much The Goldfinch sprawls. Though many sentences and scenes are miraculous, some feel as though they’re just hurrying you along to the next plot twist. Then again, it’s not hard to see why an editor, even the venerable Michael Pietsch, would want to take a hands-off approach to Tartt: her scenes are so often packed with thrills of meaning and feeling, so sure of themselves that they must resist cuts. Then there’s the fact that this book is the recounting of a life, and there’s quite a bit of flabbiness to a life — quite a bit more than Tartt allows here, of course. So we might call the book’s excess a sort of realistic paunch, one that Theo wears without any shame, and one that this reader at least is willing to overlook on account of all the other fine qualities on display here.
In the end, the book is not just a romp, not just Harry Potter for adult realists (though it is engaging enough for the comparison), not just a tome of an adventure story. Tartt has deep insights on the human condition, the tragedy of waywardness, and the nature of art, which she peppers throughout in some of the book’s best writing. At nearly the end of the novel, Theo reflects, “And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.” This space, to my mind, is the key to the novel, which is both art and magic, and an endlessly absorbing adventure besides.