Donna Tartt's Goldfinch glides between art and life

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The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt. Little, Brown and Company, 784 pp, hardcover

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The pressure on a new book from American writer Donna Tartt is staggering. After all, it’s not every author whose debut novel—like 1992’s The Secret History—is hailed as a modern classic, and who has only published one book in the intervening two decades.

Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, more than rewards the anticipation: it’s a staggering, touching, thought-provoking novel that digs deep into the reader’s heart and very soul.

The Goldfinch begins with tragedy. During a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother are caught in a terrorist bombing. Theo’s mother is killed in the attack, and Theo himself stumbles from the scene clutching a small painting, The Goldfinch, painted by 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. The painter, a student of Rembrandt and influence on Vermeer, died young himself, in a 1654 explosion that destroyed a quarter of Delft.

Theo’s unthinking, almost accidental, purloining of the painting will shape and shadow his life.

The novel follows Theo over almost a decade, from the empty apartment he had shared with his mother to the opulence of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from the ghost town of a barren new development in Las Vegas—slowly fading into the desert—to the debauched, violent climax of the novel in Amsterdam.

The Goldfinch surprises at every turn, shifting effortlessly from bildungsroman to comedy of manners to thriller, all anchored in Tartt’s clear and lush prose. Every sentence is a pleasure, a small work of art in and of itself, but the cumulative effect of the novel is, dare I say, transcendent.

The undercurrent of the work is an exploration of the nature of art itself, its power and the source of that power, the dynamic interplay between verisimilitude and visible craft. Part—and it should be stressed, only part—of the appeal of the painting is its “doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird.” The novel—most crucially in its final pages—captures that doubleness for itself, Theo’s sprawling, enthralling story coming to life through the artful daubs of Tartt’s prose, never afraid to call attention to itself.

This is not, however, a mental or academic exercise: The Goldfinch is one of the most stirring reading experiences of the year, and yes, well worth the wait.

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