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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Goldfinch’

- - Friday, April 18, 2014

THE GOLDFINCH
By Donna Tartt
Little Brown and Co., $30, 771 pages

It takes good writing and a plot that doesn't fizzle out by Page 400 to write a nearly 800-page novel. Donna Tartt has succeeded admirably in her new, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Goldfinch."

The goldfinch at issue is a tiny painting, 13-1/4 inches by 9 inches, created by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in 1654. This beautiful little masterpiece hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. The painting is real, but its journey through "The Goldfinch" is entirely fictitious.

"The Goldfinch" is a novel about the trauma of loss, the yearning for love and companionship, the craziness of lonely adolescent youth, the transcendence of beauty and the power of art. What it is, above all, is the well-told tale of a young man traumatized by an explosion that altered the trajectory of his life and the development of his character. The plot includes a tongue-in-cheek gangster scene and an unexpected denouement.

Theodore Decker (Theo), the narrator, is a 13-year-old New Yorker who survives a terrorist bomb in a museum. His adored mother is killed. Theo finds himself next to a dying elderly gentleman, who gives Theo a ring, whispers the name "Hobart and Blackwell," and tells the boy to "ring the green bell."

Dazed and confused, Theo secretly places a small painting of a tethered goldfinch in his book bag. The painting becomes his source of joy and comfort. Having no one to turn to, Theo seeks refuge with the Park Avenue family of his best friend, Andy Barbour.

Following the instructions of the dying man in the museum, Theo discovers a curious antique shop in Greenwich Village. "Through the dusty windows [he] saw Staffordshire dogs and majolica cats, dusty crystal, tarnished silver, antique chairs and settees upholstered in sallow old brocade, an elaborate faience birdcage, miniature marble obelisks atop a marble-topped pedestal table and a pair of alabaster cockatoos."

There, Theo encounters and befriends James Hobson ("Hobie") who repairs antique furniture in the basement and introduces Theo (and the reader) to the art of furniture restoration.

Theo's father and his girlfriend, Xandra, appear from Las Vegas to reclaim Theo. Left to his own devices, Theo makes friends with Boris, a wild Ukranian-Russian. The two boys exist on vodka, drugs, pills and pizza. When Theo's father dies in a car crash, Theo takes a bus to New York with his "Goldfinch" and Xandra's little dog. Back in New York, Theo turns up on Hobie's doorstep and spends the next years learning the antique-furniture trade. He becomes Hobie's partner, selling antiques upstairs while Hobie repairs and restores downstairs. Theo cheats and sells, as authentic antiques, pieces that are reproductions.

Boris, now making money in nefarious schemes, re-enters Theo's life. Complications arise when Theo discovers "The Goldfinch" has been stolen and has disappeared. He and Boris set out in a dangerous scheme to recover it.

While the plot of "The Goldfinch" keeps the reader on his toes with constant surprises, what makes the novel unique is Theo's narrative voice. Permanently damaged and scarred by the explosion and the death of his mother, the voice of the traumatized youth and the cynical, self-involved adult is ingenuous and startling.

Miss Tartt's characters are fully realized creations, from "dreamy, stumbling, asthmatic, hopeless" Andy with his "wispy, irritating voice" to Mrs. Barbour "so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood." Dickensian Hobie "six-foot-four or six-five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists . His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around the eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. " Or Boris, where "there was also a dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent."

Equally evocative are Miss Tartt's descriptions. For example, Canyon Shadow was "a toy town, dwindling out at desert's edge, under menacing skies. Most of the houses looked as if they had never been lived in. Others — unfinished — had raw-edged windows without glass in them; they were covered with scaffolding and grayed with blown sand, with piles of concrete and yellowing construction material out front. The boarded-up windows gave them a blind, battered, uneven look as of faces beaten and bandaged."

In the end, grateful to have found a solution to the unlawful possession of his painting, Theo "come[s] to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don't, and can't, understand. What's mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn't fit into a story, what doesn't have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy."

It may be a long book, but it's a great story.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.