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Donna Tartt's New Novel of Art and Graft

Nov 04, 2013

Fair warning: I'm writing this review as a critic but also as a fan. I've read Donna Tartt's The Secret History probably five times, ballpark--maybe more, if you aggregate my obsessive reperusal of particular favorite scenes. When it appeared in 1992, The Secret History was like an object phase-shifted over from some more literarily exciting dimension: an exotic hybrid beast exhibiting the best traits of literary novels, detective fiction and intellectual history, with none of the boring bits. Postmodern cultural theory had promised me a future in which high and low fiction converged. In The Secret History, they did.

I'm not a pushover: I'm perfectly capable of not reading Tartt. The Secret History was followed 10 years later (like a glittering literary cicada, Tartt emerges only at long intervals) by The Little Friend, a Southern-gothic fever dream that, to my shame, I have never managed to finish. Now, 11 years after that, we have The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch I finished.

The book begins with a terrorist bombing in New York City. Tartt supercharges this already fraught scene--Tartts it up--with extra psychic and aesthetic meaning by setting it at a museum. (It's typical of her magpie sensibility that she wouldn't stage a bombing anywhere as vulgar as Times Square.) Among the survivors is a 13-year-old boy named Theo. His mother is killed.

Moments before the attack, they're admiring a painting, Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch. (Theo is also admiring a pretty red-haired girl.) In the dreamlike hush that follows, a dying old man urges Theo to steal the painting, and he does, thus becoming, in a trice, both victim and criminal. It's a toweringly implausible moment, and Tartt strains to sell the reader on it--but if one can invest, it does pay dividends.

Everything that happens to Theo afterward bears the stamp of that moment. He goes on to meet the dead man's business partner, a benevolent restorer of antiques named Hobie, and he falls in love with the redhead, Pippa, who was the man's niece. Sent to live with his father in Las Vegas, Theo becomes a posttraumatic teenage wastoid, tamping down pain with booze and drugs alongside a jolly nihilistic Russian named Boris. As an adult he returns to Manhattan and sets up as Hobie's partner in the antiques trade. The first half of The Goldfinch is the story both of Theo's coming of age and the education of his eye for beauty.

But his life continues to be ruled by his secret stolen masterpiece, an object so dense with grief and beauty and money and history that it's like a black hole that warps him with its gravity field, or a telltale heart under the floorboards. It underwrites Theo's happiness the way a cache of gold underwrites a currency, and at the same time it stands for everything he's lost. It won't stay hidden forever.

Tartt has a special gift for writing about outsiders who come in from the cold. She did it in The Secret History with Richard Papen, a Gatsbyesque nobody from nowhere at an elite Vermont college, and she does it here. Entering Hobie's shop, Theo becomes a sorcerer's apprentice, learning "the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents ... " Theo also gains entrée into a wealthy Upper East Side family called the Barbours (presumably named for the hearty British outerwear brand), and Boris initiates him into a pan-European criminal underground. However many times Tartt performs it, the trick never gets less magical.

The Goldfinch is not a perfect book. The prose is slightly overegged--I'd peg it at about 15% too long--and Theo is, like Richard before him, a bit of what on the Internet is called a Mary Sue: so passive and colorless that you wonder why all these fascinating people don't ditch him and hang out with each other instead.

But Theo wonders that too. He never gets comfortable--"Never forget you aren't one of them," a friend whispers. (Farther up that same page, fans will spot a cameo by The Secret History's Francis Abernathy.) Fundamentally homeless, he becomes an existential hero, finding patterns in his rudderless life, trying to convince himself that they mean something and sometimes failing. "If you scratched very deep at that idea of pattern," he thinks, "you hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you'd ever looked at or thought of as light."

But in life, as in art, there are always patterns, however shallow, and they have a way of finding Theo. Here's one of them: the blast that begins the book is the echo of an earlier one, the one that killed the real Fabritius in 1654 when a gunpowder factory next to his studio exploded. His Goldfinch survived it. Theo must learn to survive too.

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