By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown and Company, 784 pages
The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut, was that exceedingly rare creature: a brilliant and addictive thriller that utterly fulfilled its unprecedented pre-publication hype. The novel became a bestseller, and 28-year-old Tartt became the hottest literary ticket in town. And then she disappeared.
Ten years later, Tartt wrote The Little Friend, a forgettable trial of a book. Now she’s back, after another decade, with The Goldfinch—a 784-page doorstop named after a painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Carel Fabritius.
The Goldfinch begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam, where Theo Decker, an American with a complicated past, is wracked with guilt over some mysterious crime he has apparently helped to commit. “The Herald Tribune had no news of my predicament,” he tells us, “but the story was all over the Dutch papers, dense blocks of foreign print which hung, tantalizingly, just beyond the reach of my comprehension. Onopgeloste moord. Onbekende.” In a dream, Theo’s dead mother appears. It’s a taut and tantalizing set-up, and gives us reason to hope that the 21-year wait since The Secret History’s publication will have been worth it.
Flashback to “the dividing mark: Before and After.” Thirteen-year-old Theo is in trouble at his private school in Manhattan; on the way to meet the headmaster, he and his mother take shelter from a thunderstorm at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and kill time in an exhibit featuring the Old Dutch Masters. “This is just about the first painting I ever loved,” his mother says, steering him toward The Goldfinch. Fabritius, she explains, was Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher; in 1654, the artist was killed and nearly all his work was destroyed in a catastrophic gunpowder explosion in Delft. But Theo is distracted: He can’t focus on the painting, because his attention has been magnetically drawn to a little red-haired girl who happens to be traipsing through the galleries with an old man in tow. Tartt is ladling out foreshadows with both hands; death, an explosion, the painting, and the girl will dominate the rest of Theo’s life.
Moments later, a terrorist bomb detonates in the museum’s gift shop. Stunned and shell-shocked, Theo wanders through the corpse-filled rubble in search of his mother (who had just nipped out to take a final look at Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson), but not before he spends disturbing and gory moments watching the death throes of the old man he noticed right before the catastrophe. The man presses a ring into Theo’s hand, begs him to deliver it to “Hobart and Blackwell,” and insists that Theo take with him Fabritius’s painting (which is now somehow lying, unframed and intact, a few feet away). Theo staggers out of the museum with the ring in his pocket and the painting tucked into a shopping bag, and runs home across Central Park while the rain washes him clean of the old man’s blood.
Tartt describes the ghastly hours and days that follow the explosion with clinical precision and an almost sadistic slowness. Theo, holding out futile hope, waits for his mother in their apartment; when the inevitable news of her death comes, he is taken in by the Barbours, a WASPy Park Avenue family. When he delivers the ring (Hobart and Blackwell turns out to be an antique shop in Greenwich Village) he finds the little red-haired girl, who somehow also survived the blast. Her name is Pippa. She kisses him with lips that are sticky from a morphine lollipop; the kiss and the morphine both imprint on his soul.
By the following spring, Theo is recovering. The Barbours invite him to join them for the summer in Maine, and a fairy-tale ending seems within reach. “They’ve gotten quite fond of you—Mother, especially,” one of the Barbour sons tells him. “I believe they may want to keep you.”
But Tartt, in the first of many creaky and overdetermined plot twists, has other plans. Suddenly, Theo’s estranged father (a gambler and alcoholic no-goodnik, with trashy second wife in tow) appears and drags Theo to a godforsaken exurb of Las Vegas. The elegance of Theo’s New York world evaporates; at his new school, he takes up with Boris, “the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and—as it turned out—one of the great friends of my life.” (Tartt’s prose, like Theo’s personality, turns mushy and indistinct once the novel heads west.) Boris teaches Theo to drink, swear, shoplift, and fight; he’s a modern-day Artful Dodger with a Slavic accent, and he steals every scene he’s in. In his wake, Theo drifts along aimlessly. Eventually, he returns to New York, develops a morphine habit, and becomes a crook, at which point we tire of him completely.
Part of the problem is that after several chapters of Boris, Theo seems like a drip; he flops around helplessly no matter where he fetches up, and his post-traumatic lassitude feels self-indulgent and unearned. But the real issue is that Tartt proves unable to manage both her story and her characters simultaneously. As the action lurches frantically from coincidence to reversal to coincidence again, the plot’s ostensible significance is lost; to compensate, Tartt regularly slams on the brakes to insert stagnant expository sections. Theo, we are repeatedly informed, still misses his mother. He still loves Pippa. He’s still obsessed with the goldfinch painting, which turns up like a bad penny every hundred pages or so.
The fact that Tartt keeps needing to remind us about all this is a bad sign, and the clumsy way she articulates Theo’s obsessions makes them entirely unconvincing. “She was the missing kingdom, the unbruised part of myself I’d lost with my mother,” Theo says of Pippa. “Whenever she smiled at me, Heaven blew in.” It gets worse. Invariably, Theo responds to painful memories “with a pang.” He expresses dismay by “blinking as if someone had just shaken me awake from a sound sleep.” And after yet another plot twist, Theo feels “pole-axed and confused, as if at an un-funny practical joke.”
Things happen to Theo in abundance, but Tartt wants us to appreciate his character as well, which is why she keeps trotting out long-winded descriptions and weary metaphors. When Theo crosses over to the dark side (drug addiction; fake-antique dealing), Tartt describes his “beady auspices” in utterly generic terms. “When selling a piece…it was a game to size up a customer and figure out the image they wanted to project,” Theo drones. “I soon learned how to dress (on the edge between conservative and flashy) and how to deal with sophisticated and unsophisticated customers, with different calibrations of courtesy and indolence…quick to flatter, quick to lose interest or step away at exactly the right moment.” Call him the Artless Dodger.
For the reader dogged enough to keep going, there’s a payoff; five hundred pages in, Boris reappears and the story accelerates toward a hectic finale involving drug dealers, Russian mobsters, art thieves, and the goldfinch painting. Unfortunately, Tartt ruins a perfectly decent climax by tacking on an embarrassing coda in which Theo turns himself inside out trying, in his ham-fisted way, to explain the significance of the book we’ve just read. “And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand,” Theo tells us, sounding for all the world like a stoned college kid rather than an international criminal who’s given both the law and the mob the slip. “And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is—is short. That Fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins, but that doesn’t mean we need to bow and grovel to it.”
Blah, blah, blah, Theo, we get the idea. Stop talking and give your pal Boris a call.