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Dickensian Ambition And Emotion Make 'Goldfinch' Worth The Wait

"Dickensian" is one of those literary modifiers that's overused. But before I officially retire this ruined adjective (or exile it to Australia, as Dickens himself would have done), I want to give it one final outing, because no other word will do. Here goes: Donna Tartt's grand new novel, The Goldfinch, is Dickensian both in the ambition of its jumbo, coincidence-laced plot, as well as in its symphonic range of emotions. The Goldfinch far exceeds the expectations of those of us who've been waiting on Tartt to do something extraordinary again, ever since her debut novel, The Secret History, came out in 1992. Hell, I feel like I've been waiting for a novel like this to appear not only since I read The Secret History, but also since I first read David Copperfield.

There's a lot of Copperfield in Tartt's hero, Theo Decker, who's 13 years old at the start of this story, which he narrates in retrospect as an adult. Young Theo lives with his adored beautiful mother in Manhattan. (His dad, a shiftless actor and gambler, has deserted them — and good riddance, too.) Unfortunately, Theo is not as pure as David Copperfield was as a boy; in fact, on the most fateful morning of his life, Theo and his mother have an appointment at his prep school to discuss his suspension for smoking on school grounds — or maybe it's for stealing (Theo is guilty of that crime, too). But what Theo will ultimately spend the rest of his life atoning for is the death of his mother. It wasn't his fault. Adults will assure him: It was "a terrible accident, rotten luck, could have happened to anyone." "[I]t's all perfectly true," Theo admits, "and I don't believe a word of it."

Donna Tartt's other works include <em>The Secret History </em>and <em>The Little Friend</em>.
Bruno Vincent / Getty Images
Getty Images
Donna Tartt's other works include The Secret History and The Little Friend.

What happens is that on the way to the school appointment, Theo and his mom take shelter from a sudden thunderstorm by ducking into The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo's mom studied art and she steers him over to one of her most beloved paintings: It's called The Goldfinch and it's an actual painting done in the mid-17th century by a teacher of Vermeer's named Carel Fabritius. Theo half-listens to his mother's lecture on the glories of this painting of an alert yellow bird "chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle"; then, just as they're moving off to the dreaded school appointment, a terrorist bomb explodes in The Met. Theo's mother is killed and life as he knew it is shattered.

As in The Secret History and her second, less successful novel, The Little Friend, which centered on an unsolved murder, Tartt plays here with the conventions of the suspense thriller. In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo comforts a dying man who gives him a ring and points to the small painting of The Goldfinch, lying in the rubble out of its frame. Theo takes custody of both objects and they lead him on a baroque coming-of-age adventure that includes a season in hell in Las Vegas with his deadbeat dad, brushes with the Russian mob, unrequited love, excessive teen drug use and the discovery of a place almost like home in a New York antique shop — an old curiosity shop, if you will — run by an open-hearted mensch named Hobie, who becomes Theo's guardian. I have, by the way, only taken us halfway through this 700-plus-page novel.

As ingenious as Tartt's plot is, this novel would be but a massive scaffolding feat, were it not for her uncanny way with words. Here's Theo, as an adult, telling us about a feverish dream he had of his mother:

Like the goldfinch in the painting he can't bring himself to relinquish, Theo is chained, forever yearning for the mother he lost on that terrible day in the museum. His loneliness is the realistic emotional constant in this crowded, exuberantly plotted triumph of a novel. And if that ain't "Dickensian," I don't know what is.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.