Dutch painting, ‘The Goldfinch,’ becomes talisman in Donna Tartt novel

New York TimesOctober 12, 2013 

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

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    Fiction The Goldfinch Donna Tartt

    Little, Brown & Co., 771 pages

The goldfinch referred to in the title of Donna Tartt’s dazzling new novel is a charming painting of a pet bird created in 1654 by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died that year at 32, when the gunpowder arsenal in Delft exploded, destroying part of the city. His “Goldfinch” is considered a small but priceless masterpiece of Dutch painting.

Fabritius’ bird is at the center of this glorious, Dickensian novel that pulls together all Tartt’s remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.

“The Goldfinch” is at once a thriller involving the theft and disappearance of the Fabritius painting, a panoramic portrait of New York and especially an old-fashioned coming-of-age story, complete with a “Great Expectations”-like plot involving an orphan, his moral and sentimental education and his mysterious benefactor. It’s a novel that weds Tartt’s gift for orchestrating suspense – showcased in her best-selling and much-talked-about 1992 debut, “The Secret History” – with the hard-won knowledge she acquired in her ungainly 2002 novel, “The Little Friend,” of how to map the interior lives of her characters.

The narrator and hero of “The Goldfinch” is one Theo Decker, 13 when we first meet him, a smart New York scholarship kid who lives alone with his mother in a small Manhattan apartment. His heavy-drinking father, who abruptly left them (no money, no forwarding address), was always so unreliable that Theo developed a lasting fear that his mother might not come home from work: “Addition and subtraction were useful mainly insofar as they helped me track her movements (how many minutes till she left the office? How many minutes to walk from office to subway?).”

Then, one day, everything changes: Theo and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition featuring one of her favorite paintings – “The Goldfinch” – a bomb explodes. The terrorist attack kills Theo’s mother, and his life divides, forever, into a Before and After.

In the confusion of the bomb’s aftermath, Theo has a strange encounter with a delirious old man injured in the blast. The man, who turns out to be the uncle of a beautiful girl named Pippa, whom Theo glimpsed at the museum before the explosion, begs Theo to save “The Goldfinch” from the burning wreckage and gives him a ring, whispering the cryptic words: “Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell.”

Theo stumbles out of the museum and into a new chapter in his life, where he is living on Park Avenue with the wealthy Barbours, the family of his school friend Andy, while serving a kind of apprenticeship to James Hobart, the former business partner of the dying man in the museum and an expert in antiques restoration who lives above his old curiosity shop in Greenwich Village. Although Theo initially intends to return the painting he has grabbed so impulsively, he finds it difficult to get it back to the museum unobtrusively, and he realizes that he’s developed a deep emotional attachment to the artwork, which he’s come to think of as a talisman of his beloved mother.

This sequence of events may sound highly improbable, but Tartt is adept at harnessing all the conventions of the Dickensian novel – including startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune – to lend Theo’s story a stark, folk-tale dimension as well as a visceral appreciation of the randomness of life.

No sooner have the Barbours and Hobart begun to provide Theo with the semblance of stability than his disreputable father, Larry, resurfaces, intent on asserting his parental rights and suspiciously keen on cleaning out his wife’s apartment. Larry appears to support himself and his girlfriend by gambling, and he quickly whisks Theo (who’s packed “The Goldfinch” painting in his suitcase) away to his McMansion in the Vegas desert.

His salvation is a new best friend named Boris: a funny, profane, street-smart kid who grew up in Australia, Russia and Ukraine and who plays Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist.

Theo and Boris spend a lot of time drinking and getting high in Vegas, but with different motives. As Boris later puts it: “I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.” In fact, Theo’s lingering trauma over the loss of his mother and his angst about something terrible that has happened to his father have led him to develop a serious addiction to opiates.

After his return to New York, Theo joins Hobart’s antiques business and tries to stabilize his life. It’s not long, however, before he finds himself in an increasingly precarious position. Investigations into the disappearance of “The Goldfinch” painting have heated up, and there are even mystifying suggestions that it is being used as collateral in international drug deals.

But it’s not just narrative suspense that drives this book; it’s Theo and Boris, the stars of this enthralling novel, who will assume seats in the great pantheon of classic buddy acts (alongside Laurel and Hardy, Vladimir and Estragon, and Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon), taking up permanent residence in the reader’s mind.

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