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Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

Tartt’s third novel in twenty-one years has, like its predecessors, been eagerly awaited, is a blockbuster (over eight hundred pages) and has been subject to considerable scrutiny and criticism in its short life. Some critics have loved it, others have torn it apart. It has been accused of being a Harry Potter tribute novel. (Having never read a Harry Potter novel I am not in a position to say but I thought Harry Potter was about magic and witches and good versus evil, which this novel really is not, except perhaps for a bit of good vs evil. The main character is nicknamed Harry Potter because he looks like him.) Is it as good as The Secret History? No, but then very few books are, but it is still a superb novel, one which will have you engrossed as, apparently, the Harry Potter novels did, and confirms Tartt as one of the leading US novelists.

The story follows Theodore Decker, who is thirteen at the start of the novel. As it is a Tartt novel, you know that tragedy will ensure and it does. Theo, as he is called, except by those who nickname him Potter, lives with his mother in New York. His father, a drunk who was neither a caring father or husband, has run off, leaving Theo and his mother to fend for themselves. Theo is not doing too well at school and has been suspended for being seen smoking with a friend. In fact, only the friend, Tom Cable, was smoking but, as Theo was with him, he has been punished, as well. He and his mother are summoned to a meeting the next day. On the way, his mother, who was very keen on art and had a degree in art history, persuaded him that, as it was raining, they might as well stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was an exhibition on, which included Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, a small painting which Theo’s mother particularly wanted to see. While there, Theo sees a red-haired girl his own age, who is of more interest to him than the paintings. Suddenly, there is a huge explosion. Theo is knocked unconscious and, when he recovers, he finds that he is hurt but not badly. He talks to the old man who had been with the girl. The old man mistakenly recognises him and gives him a ring and his address. Meanwhile, Theo sees The Goldfinch, hides it in his bag and, unable to find his mother, manages to leave. It seems that the police and firefighters had not entered, fearing a second bomb. Theo goes home and later finds that his mother and the old man had been killed.

The rest of the novel follows on from these events, namely his possession of the painting, the death of his mother and meeting the old man. Theo is moved around, staying first with a school friend and then, when his father reappears, with his father and his partner in Las Vegas, where he meets Boris, a strange young man who is a mixture of Polish, Russian and Ukrainian, and who leads Theo off the strait and narrow, and who will be key to the events of the novel. Theo re-emerges in New York, where he lives with the business partner of the old man and becomes an antique seller. The painting, Theo’s love life and a complicated but interesting plot involving the painting, Boris and some shady New York-based crooks round out the story.

As in her previous two books, Tartt’s skill lies in her beautiful writing skills. At times, nothing much seems to be happening and you wonder where it is going and then, suddenly, the plot speeds up and a series of events move Theo on. There is also, as in the other two books, the ever-present underlying threat of violence, which hums along beneath the surface but is continually popping up to change the tempo. Unrequited love and the strength of friendship over family and romantic relations are also key. Above all, it is Tartt’s strength to take us into a world that, at times, might seem familiar but often is not, but is rather threatening, dark and unsettling. This is story-telling at its finest and also a literary novel of the highest calibre which all but the curmudgeonly cannot fail to enjoy. HarryPotteresque? I am not competent to judge but Tarttesque is certainly good enough for me.

Publishing history

First published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013