THE BLOG
10/16/2013 06:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Easy Reader: Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" Takes Flights of Imagination

It's beginning to look as if every 10 years or so--and no matter what the weather or geopolitical situation is--we can count on a new novel from Donna Tartt. In 1992 we were treated to The Secret History. In 2002 we received The Little Friend. And now only slightly out of synch in 2013 we have The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, $30, 784pp.)
And thrilled to have it, especially since there are finite expectations where a book once a decade from an author is implied. It's not the same as waiting for the next, say, Joyce Carol Oates entry, since the previous one came over the transom yesterday and the following one is due tomorrow.
But enough about scheduling, and more about Tartt, who's on record saying she can't imagine releasing a book every year. The infrequency of her hefty tomes makes her someone to savor especially. Indeed, it goes beyond especially, since there's so much to say in favor of the new release and so much to think about when it comes to the book's origins.
Even more than that, it needs to be established immediately that on the evidence of this third undertaking and its initial Manhattan setting--in contrast to her two previous settings--Tartt is plainly not interested in repeating herself.
The 26-year-old hero of the irresistible saga--who's younger (13) when he flashes back to the incident that set his odyssey in motion--is Theo Decker. Extraordinarily precocious in a way not unlike Holden Caulfield, he's perhaps too precocious to be believed as he fills in the details of his perilous adventure.
If so, Tartt makes him so likable in his worried condition that few readers will resist trailing him from the day his mother, Audrey--after being abandoned by her husband, Larry--perishes in what appears to be a terrorist bombing that damages several rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo, who's watched his mom head elsewhere, happens to be in the only partially affected "Room 32." So's an oddly alluring young woman called Pippa and an older man accompanying her. Also prominent there is the portrait of a goldfinch that Tartt has positioned just so Theo, in the heat of the moment, can snatch it and make his way out of the museum with it undetected.
(N. B.: The explosion is purely a figment of Tartt's imagination, although the goldfinch portrait--a version glimpsed in partial exposure on the book's cover--isn't. What's fictionalized here is the small painting's whereabouts. It actually remains safely installed at the Hague's Mauritius. It's the handiwork of Carel Fabritius, generally considered to be Rembrandt's must accomplished apprentice and whose life was cut short in a 1654 Delft factory explosion.)
It's significant that the goldfinch in question is shown tethered to a perch, as the rest of the tale involves Theo's preoccupation over the next 13 years with the disposition of the painting. As Tartt plots it, Theo is tethered to the painting in the same constricting way the bird is tied down. And over time the purloined piece becomes the focus of an international search, along with other missing famous paintings, so that no matter where Theo goes, he can't escape thinking about it and trying to hide it.
And he goes several hectic places. Among them is the home of the Upper East Side Manhattan Barbours, where nerdy school chum Andy resides with three siblings (Platt, Todd and Kitsey) and his rich, dissatisfied Barbour parents. Theo's alternate home is with genius West Village furniture repairman Hobie Hobart, to whom Theo would like to confide his secret but can't muster the courage.
More or less contented uptown and down, however, Theo is thrown off course by the appearance of his father and brassy new girlfriend Xandra (born Sandra), who live in Las Vegas and remove Theo there. Thrown into a vastly different environment, Theo starts school in a class where half the students are reading Great Expectations--Tartt's blatant hint that to a large extent she's thinking Charles Dickens and potentially thwarted expectations. Indeed, here's where he meets his own Artful Dodger, an émigré mostly from Russia and Ukraine.
Palling around together under a resolute and dissolute bond, Theo and Boris continue their rollercoaster friendship even after the former returns to New York City, to Hobie, to Pippa and the Barbours (he gets engaged to the now fabulously beautiful but superficial Kitsey). He's remains linked to Boris more so when--as Tartt has made inevitable from the get-go--things get truly prickly around the purloined Fabritius item. That's when Boris's shading dealings require a trip to Amsterdam and entanglement with shadier characters. There is, finally, a resolution to Theo's chronic problem but not necessarily a thoroughly happy one.
Figuring out why it takes Tartt 10 years to dispatch a tome isn't difficult. Merely accumulating the innumerable references she makes, not to mention the many languages she puts into her character's mouths, has to be time-consuming. She's one of those writers who seems to know everything about everything and derives good fun out of putting it all down on paper.
Perhaps selfishly, I've keyed into a few ways in which she might cut down the between-books years to seven or eight: trimming her manuscript of its excesses. There are segments of The Goldfinch that seem repetitive or extraneous. For one example, the Las Vegas years and Theo's and Boris's shenanigans during them needn't be quite so extensive. For another, when Theo is stranded in Amsterdam, there's a sequence concerning a missing passport that takes up more space than it should.
At its heart, The Goldfinch is a character study, and there are moments as Theo is being studied when the thought could cross readers' minds that few, or no, characters call for this much attention. But by volume's end Tartt pulls it all together through letting it be known she has another goal in mind. It revolves around the nature of good and evil, for which the invocation of the tethered goldfinch (read also Theo) is a symbol. She's asking whether it's possible that good can sometimes be culled from evil--and, as she asks, she's offering possible evidence that it not only can be, but sometimes is.
Not a bad thesis, and quite a terrific book in which to state her case.