Every decade or so, Donna Tartt reemerges from her reclusive writerly life to publish a new book, at which time her readers crawl back out from under the spines of other novels, ready to accept the magnificent volume into our lives and libraries. I don’t keep it a secret that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is my favourite book (along with Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which is in the same vein, really: pretentious teenagers, witty writing, murder), so I was eager to see if Tartt’s new book could compare. Spoiler alert: it does. The Goldfinch returns with Tartt’s signature combination of unforgettable characters and gorgeous prose.
I was fortunate to attend Tartt’s reading at the Toronto Reference Library last November, and since I thought I would never, ever get the opportunity to see her in person or get a book signed, I was thrilled. Like, really thrilled. Cross-it-off-the-bucket-list thrilled. At the reading, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tartt is less severe than her author photos and reclusiveness might suggest: she warmly answered questions from both the interviewer (Jared Bland, who was wonderful as always) and fans (only appearing weary at one questioner’s insistence that she name her top four books. They were, for the record: Lolita, Bleak House, Jekyll & Hyde and The Great Gatsby). Dream fulfilled, I settled down to finish the novel.
At nearly eight hundred pages, The Goldfinch was certainly worth the eleven-year wait since The Little Friend. The story is told by Theo Decker, who as a young boy survives a bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The explosion kills his mother and creates a bond between Theo and a dying old man, who encourages him to take the titular Goldfinch painting. For reasons he can’t explain, Theo doesn’t return the painting, but keeps it secretly with him when his his previously absent, alcoholic father turns up to whisk him off to Las Vegas for a life of artificial domesticity, complete with McMansion, dog and new stepmother. In Vegas, Theo befriends Boris, another abandoned son, and the pair search for meaning in the desolate desert landscape, and increasingly in petty theft, drugs, and alcohol. Theo later returns to New York (with painting hidden in his suitcase) and grows up under the care of Hobie, a delightfully absent-minded antiques restorer. Theo remains haunted by his past, his parents, his painting, until Boris shows up to turn Theo’s life upside down, again. The Goldfinch is a sort of Tell-Tale Heart story, with Theo slowly being driven mad by his act of theft – obsessively checking on the painting, compulsively tracking the news for hints that the authorities might be on to him, and gazing on it in a my-precious sort of way.
The Goldfinch questions the difference between life and art by consuming Theo’s life with paintings, museums, and antiques, but seems to suggest that what both have in common is not love, or passion, but artifice. The novel’s character-like settings (art-obsessed New York City, the spectral suburbs of “Lost Vegas,” and feverish Amsterdam) mirror the important people in Theo’s life (shallow Kitsey, his delinquent father, and the unattainable Pippa), and highlight his loneliness. Perhaps only Boris escapes accusations of artifice: hot-tempered, drunk, and charming, he embodies the chaotic life that Theo is thrown into, but simultaneously manages to ground him and provide freedom. As usual with Tartt’s male protagonists, Theo is a wonderfully deceptive narrator, and Tartt manages to surprise the reader again and again with her skillful plotting. With its beautiful writing and engaging story, The Goldfinch is my favourite book of 2013.