The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The reception Donna Tartt garnered for her third novel—it washer first in twelve years—was called a phenomenon and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 (among other honors). The story centers on the childhood and youth of Theo Decker, an ordinary boy living in New York City with his mother, until she is killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the heart of the story is an object, one that for Theo holds all the longing, sadness and knowledge of time and loss. It’s a painting that, in the wake of museum’s destruction  (and which Theo takes with him as rescue crews are evacuated), and secrets away. And like the unexpressed longing for his mother, his attachment to the picture grows deeper and more intense with time.

Tartt’s novel was both a popular and mostly critical success. Called Dickensian in its breadth, with characters who span locales from rarefied Park Avenue apartments, to bleak and deserted Las Vegas McMansions, to the antiques workshop where Theo finds solace (and temporary normalcy )with a furniture restorer, James Hobart. Stephen King called the book:

…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.

The Goldfinch is all that. A page-turner, a portrait of early 21st century New York, a paean to art and the mysteries that bind us to objects. The voice of Theo is vivid, his observations  trenchant, and to spend time with this book is to do what novels do best: allow us to sink into the mind of another, into the feelings, thoughts, opinions, observations, longings, fears, questions and doubt of a character who only wants one thing, and wants it beyond all logical measure that it defines his life.

The passages on art are thrilling, especially those of the The Goldfinch itself, which Tartt (via Theo) looks at so carefully it’s startling:

. . . the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close…hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible—and then, at a distance, the miracle, or the joke…the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone. It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.

At nearly eight hundred pages, the book is a formidable read. Though once you sink into Theo Decker’s world, you may well be grateful for the length, and for the time you’ll spend with him.

—Lauren Alwan

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