“The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s triumphant new novel grabs you right from the start. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother have taken refuge in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a sudden downpour and are visiting a special exhibit of masterpieces of Northern art, when “a roar of hot wind slammed into me and threw me across the room.”
Theo miraculously survives the bombing that killed his mother. Carl Fabritius’ masterful 9”x13”painting of goldfinch also survives intact. Theo leaves the chaos of the museum with the painting, a persistent case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a signet ring pressed upon him by a dying man.
Like many of literature's best heroes, Theo is left alone to find his way in the world. The Barbours, wealthy parents of a school friend, take him in:
Over and over, I kept thinking I’ve got to go home and then, for the millionth time, I can’t.
He settles into the Barbours' Park Avenue life relatively well, eventually following the directions of the dying man and taking the signet ring, as instructed to Hobart and Blackwell in the village. Here he meets James Hobart, or Hobie -- a restorer of high-end antiques, who lives behind an antique shop -- and Pippa – the girl he had noticed in the museum who also had managed to survive the blast.
Plans for Theo to spend the summer in Maine with the Barbours are abruptly abandoned when his deadbeat father appears and takes him – and the painting – to Las Vegas. Neglected by his father and his father's drug-dealing girlfriend, Theo’s loneliness is tempered by Boris, one of the most memorable characters of recent fiction.
In New York, I had grown up around a lot of worldly kids. . . But Boris – like an old sea captain – put them to shame. He had ridden a camel; he had eaten witchetty grubs, played cricket, caught malaria, lived on the street in Ukraine (“but for two weeks only”), set off a stick of dynamite by himself, swum in Australian rivers infested with crocodiles. He had read Chekhov in Russian. . .
If “The Goldfinch” is a Dickensian novel, then Boris is the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist, a similarity that Hobie points out when he eventually meets Boris many years later.
“Funny to meet him after hearing so much about him. Like meeting a character in a book. I’d always pictured him as the Artful Dodger. . . . Well, you know, Dickens doesn’t tell us what happened to the Dodger. Grew up to be a respectable businessman, who knows?”
In Vegas, Theo and Boris live a life fueled by beer, vodka, and increasing quantities of drugs – and are each others' salvation. Part thug, part philosopher, world-weary Boris knows the world, telling Theo that, “None of us ever find enough kindness in the world, do we?”
After his father dies, Theo finds his way back to New York, where his wonderfully redundantly named lawyer, Mr. Bracegirdle, awards Hobie with temporary guardianship. Theo grows up to become Hobie’s partner, adeptly navigating the world where art, commerce, and society intersect, and silently loving Pippa.
All this time, as aware of the risk he has taken in harboring the painting, he remains enthralled by it.
The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature – fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.
It is the painting that finally draws Theo – who has been reunited with Boris -- into the underbelly of the art world, where things come to a violent climax in Christmastime Amsterdam.
It’s all been worth it to Theo:
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.
And – I would argue – all love. . . .
For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time – so too has love.
“The Goldfinch” firmly occupies that space where art and magic brilliantly coexist. Books this good don’t come along very often. Every one of its 771 pages is a delight, capturing the grit and sprawl, color and flavor of life at the beginning of the 21st century. Like its namesake painting, it is itself a masterwork that is destined to become a classic.
“The Goldfinch” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.