Donna Tartt has a talent for writing openings. The first few pages of her new novel The Goldfinch don’t just hook you, they reach out and pull you in so fast you could find yourself dropping everything to keep reading.
In the opening pages, the narrator, Theo Decker, is mysteriously hiding out in a hotel in Amsterdam in connection with a murder. This introduction needs to be compelling because the plot soon goes in a completely different direction—for 500 pages. It will be a long time before the secret of Amsterdam is revealed.
Theo takes us back 14 years to the day his world turned upside down—his mother dies in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Minutes before the blast, they had been looking at a painting called The Goldfinch which was made by Dutch master Carel Fabritius in the 1650s. A stranger who is also dying there gives Theo a ring with instructions to bring it to a shop called “Hobart and Blackwell.” At the man’s behest, Theo also takes The Goldfinch which has been knocked to the ground.
The painting becomes the one constant in Theo’s world as he soon starts being tossed between different homes. However, he is racked by guilt that he stole a priceless artwork and lives in terror of the legal consequences he might face. Yet he never makes a serious attempt return it. It’s clear the painting represents his last tie to his beloved mother, but Tartt is careful not to lay this connection on too thick. She keeps it subtle.
Theo also holds tightly to the other elements of the day of the bombing. He wastes no time in looking up Hobart and Blackwell. The shop’s proprietor becomes like a second-father to him and the shop eventually even becomes his home. Also, for most of the book, Theo labors under unrequited love for Pippa, a girl who was in the same room at the museum that day and was nearly killed. Pippa’s character is hazy and underdeveloped, though that may be intentional on Tartt’s part. Theo’s love for her has no basis in reality. He believes that somehow because she was also a victim of the bombing she must understand him.
While Tartt focuses mainly on thoughts and emotions, she occasionally has some canny insights into the ways of the world. For instance, near the end of the book, a career criminal is astonished to discover he can make more money through legal means than illegal ones.
The book is not without flaws. The chapters on Theo’s time in Las Vegas drag on too long. Also, the action-packed showdown in Amsterdam, when it finally comes, is confusing. An alarming number of new characters and plot twists get crammed into a few short chapters. Many readers will be left wondering what exactly happened. Fortunately, the narrative returns to its slower, manageable pace as the book finally draws to a close.
Tartt is the opposite of a prolific author. Her hugely successful debut novel The Secret History was published in 1992. Readers rushed through it feverishly and hoped that more would follow soon. They had to wait till 2002 for her sophomore effort The Little Friend, and many found it disappointing. The Goldfinch was originally announced for September 2008. It was finally published in November this year. Apparently, the delay has something to do with Tartt’s preference for writing her drafts long-hand, using different color pens to help her organize the plotlines.
The Goldfinch will inevitably be compared to The Secret History. Both feature a gripping introduction, but The Secret History features some supernatural events and its ending is fairly unedifying. The Goldfinch stays completely on this earth. Ultimately, it’s a story about taking responsibility for our own actions. Theo has to let go of victimhood. He’s not cursed by fate to follow a certain path, and he finally finds his happiness in self-determination. The Goldfinch can’t compete with The Secret History when it comes to suspense, but in many ways it’s a far more satisfying read.