“Chance makes the thief,” Theodore Decker’s friend Boris tells him, an adage that often proves true in Donna Tartt’s rich and rewarding third novel, The Goldfinch.
At the center of the story is a charming, mysterious 1654 masterpiece of the same name, “a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle,” by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.
Fabritius died at 32 when a gunpowder magazine exploded. In Tartt’s novel, the painting almost meets the same fate at an exhibit in contemporary New York City, where Theo’s mother has taken him before a school meeting about some trouble the 13-year-old is in.
Since Theo’s wayward, drunken dad took off, Theo lives with just his sweet mother, a former model with an art history degree. “Everything came alive in her company,” Theo says. “She cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary.” She explains that The Goldfinch is “the first painting I ever really loved,” shortly before Theo notices a fetching redhead his age visiting the exhibition with an older man.
An explosion rocks the museum, killing Theo’s mother and knocking him out. When he wakes, the redhead’s guardian gives Theo a ring and tells him to take it to an antiques shop in Manhattan, and also instructs Theo to leave with The Goldfinch. Stunned Theo obeys, stuffing the painting into his backpack, and heads out into his radically reconfigured life, in which the red-haired girl and the antiques store will become important fixtures.
Theo first stays with the Barbours, the family of his nerdish friend Andy, under the care of Mrs. Barbour, “from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood.” But Theo’s addicted, gambling father and his drug-dealing girlfriend, Xandra, turn up to claim him, taking him to a half-deserted subdivision in Las Vegas. There Theo is left to his own devices and becomes fast friends with Boris, a funny Ukrainian teenager, “budding alcoholic” and “fluent curser in four languages” who is savvy about underworld transactions.
As Theo grows up, he agonizes over what to do with the painting, which becomes a steady talisman for him in his chaotic life; it also increasingly generates guilt and anxiety as he realizes authorities are searching for the priceless masterpiece. The suspense about what will happen to Theo and the painting holds this expansive, generous book together, as does the reader’s sympathy for Theo, which endures even after he makes a hash of several opportunities.
With the gripping plot in motion, Tartt stretches out and demonstrates all her gifts as a novelist in the Dickensian mode. Each character, no matter how minor, from Spanish-speaking Manhattan doormen to a neglected lapdog named Popper to a refined, mild-mannered antiques dealer are complete, vital creations with characteristic speech patterns and references. Tartt renders the patois of the street as naturally as she does the lingo of the pampered elite.
Readers who loved Tartt’s debut, The Secret History, will relish her erudite but never-gratuitous disquisitions on art history, antiques and New York society. She even captures Las Vegas’ inimitable landscape and weird vibe, where the sky “was a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there.”
The Goldfinch is a novel full of humor, longing, love, sadness and disaster, a book to settle into and even wallow in, that might evoke the same ardor in readers that Theo feels for his filched painting. Theo explains, “If a painting really works down in your heart, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway, Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” The Goldfinch merits following down its many alleyways with arms wide open.