Paintings, antique furniture, literature: in Donna Tartt’s latest novel, “The Goldfinch,” the believability of these art objects invariably surpasses that of the human characters. Tartt’s title “character” is not a fictional person but rather a 17th century Dutch trompe l’oeil painting of the same name. Before the novel begins, readers are greeted in the title pages by a scaled-down color print of the 9x13” piece: a lone goldfinch, chained to part of a wall, quietly stands and returns the gaze of its viewer. Like this painting, which glows modestly but lacks the full fire of a large Old Masters tableau, the novel is impressive but not overwhelming in artistry. Its plot tends towards the improbable; its style, frequently too diffuse and apologetically self-aware. Though Tartt gives her work the intelligence to apprehend its own limitations, she does not quite fully compensate for them. However, “The Goldfinch” is so lovingly crammed with memorable characters, wicked sendups of modern society, beautiful descriptive passages, and bold ideas that it is still a fine achievement.
The plot of the novel is recounted by Theo Decker, a young man who has secretly kept the titular painting for the past 14 years of his life. Adult Theo recalls that on a rainy day in his childhood, he and his mother happened to be in a New York art museum when an explosion killed his mother and many others. In his confusion, Theo takes the painting with him as he escapes the disaster. The painting, which historically survived a disaster that killed its creator, now accompanies Theo in surviving a second calamity, this one a fictional 21st-century one that kills his own parent. He hides the painting in his pillowcase and becomes profoundly connected to it as he grows up. Meanwhile, in between adoption as a charity case by a rich Park Avenue family and being hauled to Las Vegas by his dissolute and menacing father, Theo befriends orphans and alienated individuals who effectively serve as his family.
The human comedy detailed in Theo’s journeys is one of the novel’s greatest achievements. Tartt’s pages teem with fantastic personalities; the more minor the character, the more brilliant their literary flourish. Characters are both Dickensian and unsettlingly recognizable types from our time: New York society lady Mrs. Barbour, who is “so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood”; paternalistic yuppie psychiatrist Dave; the efficient lawyer Mr. Bracegirdle; Theo’s slick gambler dad, Larry Decker; and the menacing blackmailer Lucius Reeve. Such an army of flat characters could flop in the hands of a lesser author, but Tartt exploits each figure as a nuanced comment, often satirical, on the modern human condition. This animated flatness extends, with less resulting credibility, to the more earnestly drawn band of do-gooders that aid Theo: Pippa, a girl also victimized by the blast; Hobie, the kind cabinetmaker who apprentices Theo in furniture restoration; and Theo’s kind and beautiful mother. All are orphans; all are a little depressingly interchangeable in their uniform goodness.
In terms of narrative control, moreover, the novel wants discipline. What might have been a well-tuned novel of 300 pages is instead a baggy monster of 771, mainly because Theo’s self-conscious narrating voice stretches like the bed of Procrustes. Tartt uses unjustifiably drawn-out language to capture each of the slightly different facets of his thoughts. Theo’s inefficiency as a narrator is worst in the gratuitous last page and a half of the book, in which he slowly but surely unwinds a spool of painfully clichéd take-aways for the audience: “That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.” Perhaps Tartt’s stylistic drippiness is intentional, a postmodern trick of showing the constructed nature of the narrative as Theo’s youthfully affected writing. But the stylistic impact, when dragged out over so many pages, is deadened.
But even these major flaws of the novel are valuable for their role in Tartt’s commendably elaborate exploration of the parallel between art and human life. Both painting and novel are jokes of trompe l’oeil which laugh at their viewers’ expectation of predetermined expectations of reality. Through humor, they challenge us to look deeper by provoking us out of our bland, socially dysfunctional routines. One can step up to the bird, increasingly convinced that it is really there, but step too close and it morphs into a crude lump of colored strokes. Similarly, Tartt’s characters and style fall apart as obvious artifices when approached too closely. Tartt builds a world where all her characters are figuratively, if not literally, orphans: all are alienated, losing things—parents, a sense of humor, life itself—in a world fixated on relentless work.
Tartt’s invitation to stand outside of time through shared laughter with the audience is the most powerful thing the novel suggests, albeit imperfectly. If there are round characters in the book, they are the non-human ones who laugh in the face of death, surviving time’s ravages. Arguably the best-developed of all Theo’s companions is the painted goldfinch, whose true nature proves delightfully complex and even reaches heroic stature, at one point seeming to Theo like a prisoner “dreaming of rescue.” This discovery of depth and solidity is also found in the antique art pieces in Hobie’s workshop, which awe Theo due to their lives being “longer and gentler than human life.” The passages describing such art objects are among the most gorgeous of all Tartt’s prose. Though the novel’s own gentle beauty is marred by stylistic issues, with what rich wit and artistic elaboration it does reflect, it still thoughtfully illustrates how modern life can learn from works of art that outlive history.
—Staff writer Victoria Zhuang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.