A friend and I used to joke that if we ever became famous writers, we’d make sure that our author photos were just like Donna Tartt’s: dramatic, dimly lit and slightly unsettling. Inside the back cover flap of my dog-eared, spine-trashed copy of Tartt’s cult classic debut novel The Secret History, the author stares unsmilingly into the camera, her severe haircut and black jacket giving her an austere and forbidding air.
Tartt’s photo perfectly embodies the rather mysterious image she’s built of herself over the years, although how much of this public relations effort is intentional is open to debate. Tartt is a notoriously reclusive figure whose small output (three novels in over 20 years) seems partly due to her unapologetic belief that success ‘seduces people into overproduction’, a sentiment I’ve always found admirable, if a tad frustrating (seriously, just hurry up and write another incredible book).
For Tartt fans, the 11-year wait since her last novel–2002’s The Little Friend, which was met with universal disappointment–is finally over, and her third book, The Goldfinch, is one of 2013’s huge releases. So, does it live up to the hype?
Unsurprisingly, The Goldfinch has divided critics, but I’m counting myself among its admirers. Tartt’s novel is an affecting coming-of-age tale with a beguiling narrative voice and a captivating, complex plot that’s been compared to Dickens, with its orphan protagonist (perhaps a latter day Oliver Twist) and large cast of vivid characters.
Theo Decker is 13 when the story begins; one rainy New York morning, his life changes forever when the art gallery he visits with his mother is bombed by terrorists. Theo loses his mother in the blast, but leaves the gallery wreckage with a tiny 17th century Dutch painting of a goldfinch–a picture his mother had admired just moments before the explosion. What matters to Theo, of course, is not the monetary or artistic value of the piece, but its emotional significance: it becomes a tangible memento of his mother. Over the coming years, as he ricochets from temporary accommodation with his schoolfriend Andy Barbour’s rather cold Park Avenue-dwelling family to his alcoholic father’s sterile, sparsely furnished home on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Theo smuggles the painting with him, and it becomes ‘the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate’.
Tartt takes her time establishing character and place, and it’s an absorbing ride, if a slow-moving one: the first two thirds of the novel deal with Theo’s adolescence as he attempts to negotiate the maze of his grief and forms a handful of relationships that shape the trajectory of his early adulthood. In the aftermath of the bombing, he begins spending time with Hobie, a genial West Village furniture restorer and antiques dealer, and falls for the ethereal young Pippa, another survivor of the gallery tragedy. In Vegas, his only friend is Boris, a fearless, street-smart Russian-Polish boy who introduces Theo to the numbing pleasures of drugs and alcohol.
As a young man–a self-confessed high-functioning painkiller addict with ‘nigh-on uncontrollable anxiety’, but, nonetheless, a gifted antiques dealer whose occasionally dodgy dealings have turned Hobie’s shop into a comfortably profitable business–Theo remains, in a sense, lost to himself. His stolen painting is a source of both comfort and distress, and when he retrieves it from storage after several years and sees it wrapped in a pillowcase, it has ‘a ragged, poignant, oddly personal look, less like an inanimate object than some poor creature bound and helpless in the dark, unable to cry out and dreaming of rescue’. As he re-establishes contact with the Barbour family and finds himself drawn into Manhattan society and the criminal underworld–a series of dangerous connections that culminate in a tense journey through the damp and narrow streets of Amsterdam–Theo’s fate and that of his secret painting become entwined in ways both surprising and, perhaps, inevitable.
While Tartt has returned yet again to the fertile territory of youth and how its events shape our futures and our inner selves, The Goldfinch combines its protagonist’s quest for meaning and self-invention with fascinating questions about our relationship with art and beauty. No one, Hobie tells Theo, loves a painting ‘because it speaks to all mankind’, but because ‘it’ll never strike anybody the same way … a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way in to the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles’. Theo’s story, with his stolen painting the lynchpin of his early adulthood, is similarly affecting, despite being predicated on an object: maybe because, as Theo observes, ‘it’s not about outward appearances, but inward significance’.
Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer and editor and part-time bookseller. She blogs about books at bibliostrumpet.wordpress.com.