Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a myth exploded. It’s a fairy tale for grown-ups, an outsized caper, a tragic love story, an improbable crime novel, a bromance, a coming-of-age tale, a dissection of family life post-divorce and post-death, an exercise in life-as-ekphrasis. Despite its wide range — nearly 800 pages — bustling cast of characters, and multiple coincidences (Dickens will come up in nearly every review of this book, and Tartt is a devoted fan), this is a novel that will enchant you into believing before you blink an eye.
We start with the origin story of our protagonist Theo, which holds the same recognizable kind of magic that the origins of tragic orphans so often do. His mother is killed in a random bombing; an old, dying man presses a golden ring and a priceless painting into his hands and gives him a rhyming mission: “Hobart and Blackwell… Ring the green bell.” This leads him to the closest thing New York City has to a bona fide magic shop: a cluttered storefront filled with alluring antique birdcages, alabaster cockatoos, and old books, presided over by a wizard of restoration, who first appears to Theo wearing a dramatic, ankle-length robe. It is this wizard, Hobie, who will set him on his path. Well, sort of, anyway, and only for a while. But Tartt’s novel is full of these delicious fantasies, which feel like the world we know if shined with a special Dickensian shoe polish.
The book centers on the aforementioned painting, The Goldfinch itself, which Theo can’t give up — it’s a talisman, a reminder of his beloved mother, a source of guilt and pride and a weird love that seems embedded in the color of the paint. The illicit packet in tow, Theo’s life takes him to the cold, strange home of a wealthy classmate and then to his gambling-addicted father’s equally strange house on the outskirts of Las Vegas, in danger of being eaten by the ocean; back to Hobie; and away to Amsterdam. Through all of this is the catalyst of his best friend Boris, a Ukrainian troublemaker/Artful Dodger type who challenges and irritates and inspires deep love in Theo. There is so much to love here: Tartt evokes each location so precisely that you wonder whether she really lived there herself, even side characters come to life (Xandra, Theo’s father’s girlfriend, is an absurd and deeply human example), and no one who reads this novel will forget Boris anytime soon.
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.