If you’re a novelist who takes a decade or so between books, you can only hope that your readers remember how much they loved you in the past. It’s a saturated market out there, and brand loyalty doesn’t always extend to novelists.
But ever since the news broke that Donna Tartt’s new book The Goldfinch would soon be published, many readers have been waiting in a state of breathless excitement. They’ve never quite gotten over how much they loved Tartt’s 1992 novel, The Secret History, a tale of friendship and murder set at a college, which went on to become not only an international hit but also one of those rare books that are read over and over, in hopes of reliving that initial literary rush.
Would Tartt’s latest book inspire the same kind of devotion? After all, she published a second novel, The Little Friend, that was frequently described as a letdown. Is The Goldfinch more like The Little Friend, or — fingers crossed — The Secret History?
As it turns out, it’s not much like either The Secret History or The Little Friend, and if I hadn’t known that Donna Tartt had written it, I would never have guessed. This dense, 771-page book tells the story of a boy named Theo Decker, whose mother is killed in a terrorist act early in the novel. In the midst of the trauma and chaos, Theo steals a famous painting, “The Goldfinch,” by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, setting the sweeping, episodic story in motion.
Several reviewers have compared her book to Oliver Twist, but when I started it I was more reminded of the Harry Potter series (a comparison that is actually made later in the book). The contemporary plot is often nervily improbable and outsized, and Theo, age 13 at the start, is a lot like Harry, in that both boys are gifted, tender-hearted and woefully unsupervised. Theo’s scar, while deep and permanent, is of the invisible kind.
The day The Goldfinch arrived I promptly cracked it open, remembering how my sons would pounce on the latest Harry Potter on the day it was published. J.K. Rowling transformed a generation of kids into passionate readers. Donna Tartt does something different here — she takes fully grown, already passionate readers and reminds them of the particularly deep pleasures that a long, winding novel can hold. In the short-form era in which we live, the Internet has supposedly whittled our attention-spans down to the size of hotel soap, and it’s good to be reminded that sometimes more is definitely more.
So we get a whole lot of Theo here, and also his friend Boris, a kid with a Ukrainian passport and a multi-national history who befriends him after he’s forced to leave New York City and go live with his deadbeat dad and his dad’s new girlfriend Xandra in a horrible development in Las Vegas. Boris is a great character — totally appealing, a victim of appalling parental neglect, and together he and Theo forge a friendship that’s believable, destructive, and comical:
“Don’t go!” said Boris, one night at his house when I stood up toward the end of The Magnificent Seven” … “You’ll miss the best part.”
… “You saw this movie before?”
“Dubbed into Russian, if you can believe it. But very weak Russian. Sissy. Is sissy the word I want? More like schoolteachers than gunfighters, is what I’m trying to say.”
The Las Vegas section is long and detailed, just like all the other sections of this novel. Tartt almost seems to be writing in real time, and yet I was never bored. A series of long set pieces moves the story from the suspenseful opening to the rich, dense, leisurely middle and eventually the action-packed end, which is set in Amsterdam. That part, weirdly, feels as if it was grafted on from a different novel. Or no, it almost feels as if it was grafted on from a particularly literate, stylish indie crime film on the Sundance Channel.
But the occasional disjointedness doesn’t affect the overall success of the novel, which absorbed me from start to finish. While The Goldfinch delves seriously and studiously into themes of art, beauty, loss and freedom, I mostly loved it because it kept me wishing I could stay in its fully-imagined world a little longer. Donna Tartt was right to take her time with this book. Readers will want to take their time with it, too.
Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel is The Interestings.