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Review: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

It’s been a fair while between drinks for Donna Tartt. Her previous novel, The Little Friend, came out in 2002; The Goldfinch, her latest (and, as I will argue below, certainly her greatest to date) book hit the shelves in 2013. Such a gap is par for the course for Tartt, though – The Goldfinch is only her third published novel in a 21-year writing career, her debut, The Secret History, being published in 1992, when she was 29.

Tartt is exactly a decade my senior, and I read The Secret History as a 19-year-old college student in Australia with equal parts amazement and bewilderment. The American college environment that it unpicks with precision was and remains alien to me; the interweaving of the elements of Greek tragedy; the Panic fugue into which these weird classics students descend; the intriguing inverted mystery that both complicates and shapes the plot – all these made The Secret History a reading experience unlike any other I’d had at that stage. I’ve re-read it twice in the intervening 22 years, and I find it’s a shapeshifter: every time, I seem to see it from a different angle and take something new from it, despite its ultimately less than satisfying ending.

The Little Friend, while it was certainly acclaimed (it won the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize), was not, to my mind, as great an accomplishment as The Secret History. It’s much more brutal in its themes and treatment, but that’s not why – ultimately, I did not feel that Tartt really nailed her attempt at a multi-voiced murder mystery, although there are elements of it that worked amazingly well (that Prologue is one of the most chilling and effective openings I have ever read).

So the publication of a new Tartt after such a lengthy hiatus was always going to be a matter of interest for me, as for many readers and critics. In my opinion, in The Goldfinch, Tartt has delivered her most complete work to date – not a flawless work (once again, the ending is much less strong than it could’ve been) but an engrossing, beautifully written, heart-wrenching book that maintains its themes throughout in a way that is at once cerebral and completely accessible.

At its most reduced level, The Goldfinch is a story about the loss of a parent in vulnerable early adolescence, and what it might do to a person. Being Tartt, there is, of course, a mystery / crime plot interwoven into the personal story (in this case, the theft – or is it? – of a Dutch masterpiece, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack). The book is also, to a quite surprisingly detailed extent, about drugs – their use, their procurement, their effects, the cultural and social resonances they carry, and their role in provoking extreme behaviours. It’s about love and disconnection, mental illness and alcoholism; it’s about art; it’s about antiques and restoration, New York and Las Vegas, friendship and trust and gangsters and Amsterdam and redemption.

If that sounds like a lot to pack into one story, well, it is; but Tartt pulls it off and threads it together with a return to The Secret History’s mono-focal first-person narration (which is, in truth, the only way in which a story as complex as this was ever going to work – if seen through the eyes of the central protagonist). Theodore (Theo) Decker is the node and focus of this book in every conceivable way, from the first page and on every page thereafter. It is Theo’s trauma, Theo’s fears, Theo’s obsessions and missteps and affection and love, which shapes the many tendrils of this tale and brings it coherence and comprehensibility.

It is no spoiler (I think) to state that the events of the start of the book, in which Theo and his mother, the beautiful, somewhat inscrutable Audrey, become embroiled in a bomb attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which Audrey is killed and Theo, in almost dreamlike automaton mode, removes The Goldfinch painting from its frame and leaves with it, set the tone for the succeeding two-thirds of the story. From that moment on, in 13-year-old Theo’s mind, his lost mother, the beauty of the small artwork, the girl he saw just before the explosion and later reconnects with (Pippa), the old man whose signet ring he takes at the dying man’s request and delivers to the heirs (Welty), all get conflated into one bundle of Meaning with a Capital M – a desperate assertion, which is painfully eroded over the coming years, that there is a connection, a meaning, to be found somewhere amongst the literal rubble left behind in the bomb’s wake.

The trope of the dead mother is hardly novel, but Tartt goes well beyond all the usual conventions to really look at what the loss of a beloved parent does to a vulnerable person who is not quite a child but certainly not yet adult. I ached for Theo, for his misery and his despair, his guilt and his isolation and his gut-deep loneliness. From his stint with family friends the Barbours (and what a strange household that is) to his two years in Las Vegas with his unpredictable and unpleasant father, Theo drifts along in a bubble, a walking wall of pain that can’t express itself. He clings to the illicitly obtained painting like a life-raft in a vast ocean of travail.

After a drug-fueled stay in Las Vegas, Theo resurfaces in New York to learn the antiques trade (in company with Hobie, the business partner of the same old man that Theo rescued the signet ring from in the bomb blast – which is typical Tartt circling of the plot arc). His moral erosion, his existential sense of meaningless and despair, and his unrequited romantic obsession with Pippa (who was Welty’s great-niece and hence connected to Hobie) all combine with his increasing drug use to lead him down some very questionable business paths. He reconnects with the now sadly-depleted Barbours, and gets involved with the bright, brittle and duplicitous Kitsey, the daughter of the house. And all the while, the priceless painting that he stole from the wreckage lies hidden, swaddled in multiple layers of packing, in an anonymous storage locker.

Or does it?

The book shifts quite jarringly about three-quarters of the way through from being an extended Bildungsroman into being a gritty (ish) underbelly-of-crime gangland revenge tale. It’s not that this is exactly inconsistent – the plot leads quite logically, if you don’t look too hard, to the moment where Theo ends up shooting and killing a man – but the stylistic jump is a bit awkward, and I felt, a little rushed. That said, the Amsterdam sequence is very exciting in the way that well-written crime stories are, and Tartt’s resolution of it is nothing short of brilliant; providing a plausible outcome in which Theo is not only free, but rich, is no mean feat, but she manages it thoroughly.

My only real quibble with the book, and it is a minor one, is Tartt’s uncharacteristic decision to drag out the ending with a lengthy series of moral and philosophical musings. It sits uneasily with the rest of the novel; one of the things I admire most in the book as a whole is her light and effortless integration of existentialism into the lived experiences of her characters. It’s not that Theo’s thoughts of What it All Means, If Anything are uninteresting, but more than they are underlined in thick black ink instead of being allowed to emerge from between the slips and gaps of the action.

Ultimately, though, this is a minor consideration in the context of a book that was actually worth the 11-year wait. No surprise that it won the Pulitzer Prize, and I would place it as a Man Booker longlist favourite now that Americans are allowed into that race.