Donna Tartt is one of the few writers who makes me feel I must read every word she writes. Admittedly, it’s a bit easy in this case, since she comes out with a novel about once every ten years, big, juicy books with lots of plot and fabulous characters: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and now, The Goldfinch, which I finished this morning. At 771 pages, it’s not something to enter lightly (and it will make your wrists hurt if you still prefer paper editions, as I stubbornly do [though, sidenote, I really did not like the paper this book was printed on—why has no reviewer noted this?]).
Still, Donna Tartt! So I buckled down and started reading over the Thanksgiving weekend. I’m not going to give much away, but the basic premise is that a young boy and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing the mother. The boy, Theo Decker, has a surreal exchange with a dying man who gives him a ring and tells him an address to take it to. He also tells Theo to save (by stealing) a painting, The Goldfinch by the Dutch painter Fabritius, who died tragically early—also in an explosion—and who was notably a student of Rembrandt and an influence on Vermeer, as well as being a genius in his own right. (Here’s a picture of the painting.)
Theo does as instructed, and many, many, many things happen afterwards, taking us from New York to Las Vegas to New York to Europe.
This may not be the right book for everyone, but it is about the perfect book for me. What I loved about it:
--The Dickens-ish cast of characters, all well-defined and slightly larger than life, and yet believable enough…Boris was a particular favorite!
--The feeling of being immersed in a book in exactly the way we (I assume this was not unique to me!) read as children, that sense of suspense and fear, “what will happen next?”, and seeing the world through a (smart, observant) child’s eyes. If you read and loved “orphan books” back in the day, you are exactly the right reader for this one.
--The magic of coincidence and reversals and plot that Tartt remarkably pulls off. If you like Harry Potter books, I suspect you’ll like this one, too—there’s a similar twisted inter-connectedness but with a much more sophisticated view and writing style. She was so good, that even I suspended my disbelief on a few nit-picky bits of reality (surely Theo would get some settlement money after this tragedy).
--There’s some purposeful meta- that I enjoyed, such as Boris’s nickname for Theo: Potter (because of his round eyeglasses); she knows she’s channeling Harry and what we love about that series. The writer raises the curtain a bit from time to time to let us in on her intentions without ever losing compassion for her characters.
--Wonderfully evoked settings. New York is very New Yorky, but then a different, non-touristy side of Las Vegas is equally well-depicted. I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I felt very comfortable in those sections, so much so that I’m rather surprised now, out of the book, that I haven’t actually seen those canals in real life.
--So many elements of the writing were masterful on a craft level. Great dialogue (it’s a very talky book, which I find attractive). Perhaps the only dream in fiction that is executed elegantly and feels well-placed and relevant, unlike the usual fictional dreams that often come off as convenient plot devices. And I can’t believe I’m saying this! More exclamation points than any writer should every use! And yet I’m convinced she needed every single one! !!
--Finally, and the biggest plus of all, is that the book ultimately asks the hard questions about life and death and art, and what could be more essential?
Salon interview with Donna Tartt: “To think about a place has always been a way into a story.”
The Washington Post: “The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death. Look here: A great novel can do that, too.”
The New York Times Book Review: “It’s my happy duty to tell you that in this case, all doubts and suspicions can be laid aside. “The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. I read it with that mixture of terror and excitement I feel watching a pitcher carry a no-hitter into the late innings. You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but in the case of “The Goldfinch,” they never do.”