finch

I have a weird, unabashed respect for writers who take a lot of time in between novels.  Sure, it’s frustrating, but I feel that shows they’re taking the time to write something that matters to both them and their readers.  For good authors, I will wait, because chances are, the books they put out after the waiting period are going to be miles better than anyone else’s usual fare.

This is Donna Tartt’s third book in thirty years.  Her debut, The Secret History, was an instant modern classic, though her second novel, The Little Friend, seemed to fall off the radar a bit.  Her newest novel, The Goldfinch, may be her piece de resistance.  Clocking in at 771 pages, the book is a large, encompassing, and weaving story about a boy’s journey into adulthood and the many trials and tribulations he faces along the way.  That is the most basic description I can offer, though I assure you it isn’t a normal coming of age story.

We first meet Theodore Decker as a precocious 13-year-old living in New York City.  He lives with his mother, his father a deadbeat who ran off on them a year prior.  Theo is suspended from school for smoking, and is spending the day with his mother before a meeting with the principal of his school.  When it begins to rain, they duck into an art museum where his mother takes him on a journey through the art pieces hanging there, most notably Carel Fabritius’ work, “The Goldfinch,” which is Theo’s mom’s favorite.   Suddenly, there is a terrorist attack on the museum and Theo, separated from his mother, somehow survives, though badly concussed.  In his state, he finds an older gentleman dying in the rubble who gives him a ring and tells him to go to a particular address while also urging Theo to take “The Goldfinch,” as it is laying near them in the rubble.  Theo takes the painting, and what follows is a 700+ page journey through Theo’s life.

Despite all your mirth, this is still just a finch on a perch.

The book follows Theo as he recovers from his mother’s death, living with family friends until the end of the school year.  He follows the old man’s advice and meets Hobie, the owner of an antiques shop in the East Village who takes Theo under his wing, as well as Pippa, the old man’s granddaughter who Theo has an inexplicable attraction toward.  He goes to Las Vegas with his father, who reappears in his life as a shady casino shark of sorts and has two year’s worth of drunken and drugged-out adventures with his neighbor, Boris.  They are two adolescents with too much time on their hands, left to their own devices by neglectful parental figures, essentially living on their own for weeks at a time.  Unfortunate things happen in Vegas, including the death of Theo’s father, that send him spiraling back to New York City and Hobie, where he learns the tricks of the antique trade and becomes Hobie’s business partner, handling the sales portion of things while Hobie handles the refurbishing.  He is a drug addict, mostly pills and heroin, and a liar, marking up prices on his antiques and passing off replicas as real, genuine pieces.  He reconnects with childhood friend Andy’s sister and gets engaged, though he still pines after Pippa.  Near the end, Boris comes back into his life, informs him that he stole “The Goldfinch” from Theo’s room back in Vegas, and assures Theo he can get it back.  Theo is then thrown into the world of underground art dealing and ends up in Amsterdam, where the book’s climax takes place.  Through it all, “The Goldfinch” remains a constant in his life, like a talisman that Theo needs for existence.

An early review of the book said that it seemed like Tartt was writing the story in real-time, and I can agree with that; the plot meanders a bit, and there are some moments when it is a little taxing, particularly in the day-to-day descriptions of his time in Vegas, but it is never boring.  At no point did I feel that the obsessively detailed passages were weighing down the final product.  It takes a ton of talent and skill to write this way, and Tartt exhibits a masterful and watchful control over what she tells the reader and when.  It’s basically just an exquisite piece of fiction, and definitely the book of the year.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with The Secret History, her first novel, and one of my personal favorites.  That book tells the story of a group of classics students at a small college in New England and is essentially told as a murder mystery in reverse, with the reader knowing from the outset that a character has died at the hands of the others.  The Goldfinch  begins with Theo detailing a few things in the first sub-chapter, such as that he will reunite with Hobie and end up in Amsterdam, but largely it is more linear than The Secret History and instead of revealing large plot points early, Tartt waits them out.

Additionally, the endings come from two different worlds.  The Secret History ends in a flurry, the climax happening, literally, on the final page with little to no denouement.  It is a punch to the gut, and I will never forget the way it made me feel the first time I read it.  The Goldfinch is entirely different, with the climactic point happening roughly 70 pages before the end, but the effect is almost the same.  The last subchapter is largely Theo waxing philosophical on love and the human condition, but it is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, emotional ending.  The Secret History is almost claustrophobic, with a quick punch to the emotional center to end it all, while The Goldfinch eases into your psyche, almost politely.  Yet the effect is the same.  As with The Secret History, I will never forget the way The Goldfinch crept into my emotions, and it still lingers there as I type this.  It was, most definitely, worth the wait.

Go pick the book up at your local bookstore.  Or, if you absolutely HAVE to, order from Barnes & Noble.

Overall Score
98 %

Donna Tartt returns with a sprawling masterpiece.

Plot 95%
Style 100%
Suspense 98%

About The Author

Self-deprecating fundraising lackey, avocado connoisseur, pop culture aficionado, latte-drinking liberal elitist.

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