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By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown and Company
Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
The story that is the backbone of Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, is one I keep seeing compared rather favorably, if not with a bit of reductive simplicity, to Dickens: An adolescent Theo Decker loses his mother in a museum explosion, leaving him first emotionally orphaned and later legally unmoored when his ne'er-do-well father meets a graciously early end (which is the only death in this book that brought me physical relief), eventually driving him to seek refuge with the avuncular Hobie, an antiques dealer to whom Theo was fatefully led in the aftermath of his mother's death. Theo carries around the untreated damage of his mother's death for as long as The Goldfinch follows him---into the early years of his adulthood---and presumably well beyond that to the point where he refers to his PTSD and its array of triggers with a familiarity usually reserved for an appendage. This gaping, fiercely protected wound draws him into some less than savory proclivities, like a nasty drug habit and selling Hobie's lovingly refurbished antiques as extant relics from earlier times, unbeknownst to the guardian who's more of a father figure than he's ever known in the only way he knows how to rescue the older man from financial ruin, but also renders Theo so bravely honest and sympathetically magnetic that it's easy to forgive his lesser qualities, especially since many of his shortcomings are born of a marriage between good intentions and limited options.
In fact, among the myriad lessons this book explores regarding the dualities of human nature and life itself, the fact that goodness doesn't always come from goodness and that bad doesn't always beget bad is one of its most fervently emphasized--and it should come as no surprise that a novel so devoted to art should be so keen on the notion that the world is painted in much more than just blacks and whites. The Goldfinch borrows its title from the Carel Fabritius painting of the same name (the artist, it should be noted, also died in an explosion), a favorite painting of his mother's that Theo "rescues" from the museum during his dazed, frantic efforts to escape, a theft that was really executed as a testament to the hope that his mother would soon return home to both her son and the painting he liberated for her delight alone. It is the painting that propels Theo toward a life of covert misdeeds but it is also a tangible connection to the mother whose death threw the trajectory of his future regrettably off course. Theo himself is proof that something good can come from less than well-intentioned origins, as his own father lacks the integrity and heart Theo inherited from his mother. Far from harboring delusions about himself, Theo is his own worst critic, which only renders him all the more likable.
Theo is the bruised, beating heart of this novel and the supporting cast does lend vibrant splashes of color and gorgeous harmonies throughout the composition, but the cities Theo finds himself ping-ponging across are just as alive as any corporeal character. The New York City Theo considers his lifelong home and the one he returns to after years of Las Vegas life reflect the city's tireless mutability as well as Theo's own internal metamorphosis. If NYC acts almost as its own foil, then the thin, flashy veneer and always encroaching desert of Vegas offers a glimpse into downright alien territory, a life of premature adulthood's self-reliance and prolonged childhood's tendency toward bad life choices under the uninterested watch of his self-absorbed father that contrasts darkly but critically against with the two-against-the-world safety and warmth his mother offered. The unceremonious and abrupt shift to Amsterdam robs the city of some of its old-world, foreign charm in Theo's alternately confused, feverish and despairing states during his relatively short but transformative stay, but Tartt still subtly weaves its essence into Theo's distracted narration. The full effect allows the unique spirits of the three cities to spring off each page with a palpable dimensionality that is wholly immersive. It is impossible to not see each dark street, feel each slap of icy wind and tiny drop of sweat, conjure each richly but unobtrusively detailed scene down to the draping of a tablecloth.
The painstaking research that went into this book--foreign languages, art, literature, antiques restoration, far-flung locales, capturing low-brow banter and high-class empty chatter with equally convincing success--is as impressive as Tartt's enviable command of storytelling and word-slinging. Each detail is as necessary as it is beautifully finessed, the mark of a gifted writer who knows exactly what to highlight for maximum impact rather than an amateur's scattershot load of tacked-on trivialities to hold up a story that carries no emotional weight.
A work that champions the restorative power of art, how one thing can be so beautiful in so many ways that it indiscriminately sings out to scores across the barriers of time and geography and culture to unite an audience that can't begin to know the exhaustive scope of its reach, ought to be an appropriately transformative work itself. Celebrating a masterful talent that echoes across otherwise impregnable distances because it is so rarely seen again rings trite if the tribute isn't equal to the task. The Goldfinch hits all the high notes, captures a complicated spirit in the warmest and richest of tones, and deploys an impressive literary arsenal all to such resounding success that it is, without a scrap of doubt, my only logical choice for Best Book of 2013. What else do you call a book that spans nearly 800 pages and still feels too short? That it takes a commanding self-control to write about without using five exclamation points after every caps-locked sentence? That brings with its last page the heartache of saying goodbye to an old friend?
Out of 10: 10