A seventeenth-century painting becomes the centre of a thirteen-year-old’s world.
After The Secret History and The Little Friend, Tartt’s work is another literary masterpiece.
Those familiar with Tartt’s other books will know that she is a master when it comes to heavy detail. She can go for pages and pages on a single event and while some may find this maddening I find it completely entrancing, like layers of varnish being carefully painted onto a piece of wood to create a lacquer of depth and beauty. At the same time, she manages to create plots of such intrigue that I am completely bespelled by their oddness. But the key for me in Tartt’s work is how the intense levels of detail subside the concrete elements of the plot to the point where the plot itself, strange and enticing though it may be, is almost immaterial.
It’s through the details that Tartt reveals the true subject of each book – the protagonist. For this is what Tartt writes: a character, hidden in the many hundreds of pages her books stretch to, masked behind the purposefully misleading title. The Goldfinch isn’t about a goldfinch, or even about the eponymous painting. It’s about Theodore Decker.
Theo is 13 when he visits a museum with his mother, their visit coinciding with a terrorist bomb explosion. In the confusion of smoke and debris that follows, Theo comes across a dying man, who, in a bizarre and confused conversation, gives Theo his ring and points to a painting, which Theo takes as he leaves the museum. From here, the plot twists and turns, taking Theo from near-adoption by the well-to-do family of an affluent school friend to Las Vegas to live with scoundrel of a father, then back to New York and briefly to Amsterdam over the span of around 5 or 6 years.
In the meantime Theo, his mother dead and his father a deadbeat gambler who tries to swindle his own son out of his inheritance, develops into a pretty broken individual, heavily dependent on prescription drugs and desperately, romantically, in love with Pippa, the granddaughter of the dying man Theo met in the museum after the explosion. It’s a love that is doomed before it begins, which is precisely why Theo centres his efforts on it.
If the plot sounds fantastic and confused, don’t be misled. The events unfold seamlessly and for the most part believably, even Theo’s unlikely trip to Amsterdam as part of a crime deal involving the painting he stole. For much of the book revolves around the painting, Theo’s decision to take it after the explosion and his subsequent attachment to it. We accompany Theo as he wrestles with pretty deep questions about himself in a very human (read: flawed) way.
The ending drifts slightly into strange territory, almost stream of consciousness as Theo reflects on everything that has happened. But it is forward-looking and optimistic, and completely in character. I feel like I can say this because by the end of the book I feel like I know Theo, as well as the rest of the cast. And this is why I love Donna Tartt, because she combines these bizarre outlandish plots with such deep introspection, such multi-dimensional characters that we can really get to know and feel familiar with. It’s just a pleasure to read something that is so involving and well-crafted.