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The goldfinch
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New York Times Review
The goldfinch referred to in the title of Donna Tartt's dazzling new novel is a charming painting of a pet bird created in 1654 by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died that year at 32, when the gunpowder arsenal in Delft exploded, destroying part of the city. His "Goldfinch" is considered a small but priceless masterpiece of Dutch painting. Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius's bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading. "The Goldfinch" is at once a thriller involving the theft and disappearance of the Fabritius painting, a panoramic portrait of New York (and, for that matter, America) in the post-Sept. 11 era, and, most especially, an old-fashioned Bildungsroman, complete with a "Great Expectations"-like plot involving an orphan, his moral and sentimental education and his mysterious benefactor. It's a novel that weds Ms. Tartt's gift for orchestrating suspense (showcased in her best-selling and much-talked-about 1992 debut, "The Secret History") with the hard-won knowledge she acquired in her ungainly 2002 novel, "The Little Friend," of how to map the interior lives of her characters. It's a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns - how she can tackle the sort of big, philosophical questions addressed by the Russian masters even as she's giving us a palpable sense, say, of what it's like to be perilously high on medical-grade painkillers, or a lesson in distinguishing real antiques from fakes. Ms. Tartt's theatrical, almost willful dwelling on the gothic in "The Secret History" has given way here to a deeply felt awareness of mortality and the losses that define the human condition; her controlled, cerebral approach to characters in that novel has given way to a keen appreciation of the tangled complexities of the mind and heart. The narrator and hero of "The Goldfinch" is one Theo Decker, 13 when we first meet him, a smart New York scholarship kid who lives alone with his mother in a small Manhattan apartment. His heavy-drinking father, who abruptly left them (no money, no forwarding address), was always so unreliable that Theo developed a lasting fear that his mother might not come home from work: "Addition and subtraction were useful mainly insofar as they helped me track her movements (how many minutes till she left the office? How many minutes to walk from office to subway?)." Then, one day, everything changes: Theo and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition featuring one of her favorite paintings - "The Goldfinch" - when a terrorist bomb explodes. Theo's mother is killed, and his life divides, forever, into a Before and After. In the confusion of the bomb's aftermath, Theo has a strange encounter with a delirious old man injured in the blast. The man, who turns out to be the uncle of a beautiful girl named Pippa, whom Theo glimpsed at the museum before the explosion, begs Theo to save "The Goldfinch" from the burning wreckage and gives him a ring, whispering the cryptic words: "Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell." Somehow, with these two mysterious objects in his possession, Theo stumbles out of the museum and into a new chapter in his life. Soon, Theo is living on Park Avenue with the wealthy Barbours, the family of his school friend Andy, while serving a kind of apprenticeship to James Hobart, the former business partner of the dying man in the museum and an expert in antiques restoration who lives above his old curiosity shop in Greenwich Village. Although Theo initially intends to return the painting he has grabbed so impulsively, he finds it difficult to get it back to the museum unobtrusively, and he realizes that he's developed a deep emotional attachment to the artwork, which he's come to think of as a talisman of his beloved mother. This sequence of events may sound highly improbable, but Ms. Tartt is adept at harnessing all the conventions of the Dickensian novel - including startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune - to lend Theo's story a stark, folk-tale dimension as well as a visceral appreciation of the randomness of life and fate's sometimes cruel sense of humor. At the same time, the sudden reversals and comebacks in Theo's life begin to signify something about the American dream itself: the promise of fresh starts and second acts, the continual possibility of reinvention. In much the same way, Theo's peregrinations - which take him from WASP-y Upper East Side soirees to grungy drug haunts near Tompkins Square to the "oceanic, endless glare" of the western frontier - give us a window on the ever-shifting American landscape and its emotional dislocations. No sooner have the Barbours and Hobart begun to provide Theo with the semblance of stability than his disreputable father, Larry, resurfaces, intent on asserting his parental rights and suspiciously keen on cleaning out his wife's apartment. Larry appears to support himself and his girlfriend by gambling, and he quickly whisks Theo (who's packed "The Goldfinch" painting in his suitcase) away to his McMansion in the Vegas desert. Ms. Tartt captures "the hot mineral emptiness" of this neighborhood, full of empty houses in foreclosure, as deftly as she has conjured New York City. Indeed, she turns out to have a wonderfully adroit sense of place, evoking the anonymity and hive-mind flow of Midtown Manhattan in the rain (reminiscent of Eliot's "Unreal City" in "The Waste Land"), the small-town rhythms of the Village and the neon theme-park thrum of the Vegas strip with equal acuity and élan. It's clear that Theo is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from the museum bombing and is still sick with grief over the loss of his mother - feelings only heightened by being plunked down in the lonely Nevada desert. His salvation is a new best friend named Boris: a funny, profane, street-smart kid who grew up in Australia, Russia and Ukraine and who will play Artful Dodger to Theo's Oliver Twist. The sly Boris is a memorable creation, a testament to Ms. Tartt's ability to create people who have the sort of physicality and psychological depth that Saul Bellow's characters possessed, a vitality and corporality that make the reader feel that they have a life beyond the page. Even the supporting characters in "The Goldfinch" are a finely drawn lot: Theo's mother, quick and birdlike in her starched shirts, a Kansas girl turned catalog model turned art history student, ardent in her knowledge of New York and protective of her only child; Pippa, the elfin, redheaded girl whom Theo regards as a fellow survivor (of the museum bomb blast) and a kind of soul mate; and Andy's beautiful, gregarious and mysteriously detached sister, Kitsey, whom Theo will contemplate marrying as a way to ground his wayward life. Theo and Boris will spend a lot of time drinking and getting high in Vegas, but with different motives. As Boris later puts it: "I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It's different." In fact, Theo's lingering trauma over the loss of his mother and his angst about something terrible that has happened to his father have led him to develop a serious addiction to opiates. After his return to New York, Theo joins Hobart's antiques business and tries to stabilize his life. It's not long, however, before he finds himself in an increasingly precarious position: a customer threatens to expose the store for passing off fakes as rare and expensive antiques, and investigations into the disappearance of "The Goldfinch" painting have heated up: there are even mystifying suggestions that it is being used as collateral in international drug deals. Ms. Tartt recounts these developments with complete authority and narrative verve, injecting even the most unlikely ones with a sense of inevitability while orchestrating a snowballing series of events that will grow ever more dangerous as Theo becomes involved with violent criminals who covet "The Goldfinch" as much as he does. But it's not just narrative suspense that drives this book; it's Theo and Boris, the stars of this enthralling novel, who will assume seats in the great pantheon of classic buddy acts (alongside Laurel and Hardy, Vladimir and Estragon, and Pynchon's Mason and Dixon), taking up permanent residence in the reader's mind.
Library Journal Review
This latest work from Tartt (Little Friend) is nothing like the small, exquisitely rendered painting of the title. Protagonist Theo Decker is just 13 years old when his mother is killed in an explosion at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which the two had been visiting (but when?). Before the explosion, Theo makes eye contact with an appealing girl his age; afterward, he lifts the goldfinch painting (but why?) and is given a ring by the older man accompanying the girl (but why?). The ring leads him to Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques shop where he meets both generous proprietor Hobie and Pippa, the girl from the museum, who remains the elusive love of Theo's life. Meanwhile, Theo stays with the wealthy family of his sort-of friend Andy until his long-gone father reappears to plunder the mother's apartment (but who paid the rent all that time?) and take poor Theo to Las Vegas. There, free of parental guidance, Theo befriends Russian bad-boy Boris and goes off track, eventually returning to New York, floundering through school, and setting up business with Hobie, whom he more or less betrays (but why?). Verdict There might be an acute psychological portrait of grief and growth buried here, but there's so much unconsidered detail that subject and background seem switched, as in a badly done painting. We should feel for Theo in his anguish, but instead he leaves an acrid taste in the mouth. Tartt is beloved, and readers are going to go after this book (but why?). [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/13.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Donna Tartt's latest novel clocks in at an unwieldy 784 pages. The story begins with an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum that kills narrator Theo Decker's beloved mother and results in his unlikely possession of a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Shootouts, gangsters, pillowcases, storage lockers, and the black market for art all play parts in the ensuing life of the painting in Theo's care. Tartt's flair for suspense, on display in The Secret History (2005), features the pulp of a typical bildungsroman-Theo's dissolution into teenage delinquency and climb back out, his passionate friendship with the very funny Boris, his obsession with Pippa (a girl he first encounters minutes before the explosion)-but the painting is the novel's secret heart. Theo's fate hinges on the painting, and both take on depth as it steers Theo's life. Some sentences are clunky ("suddenly" and "meanwhile" abound), metaphors are repetitive (Theo's mother is compared to birds three times in 10 pages), and plot points are overly coincidental (as if inspired by TV), but there's a bewitching urgency to the narration that's impossible to resist. Theo is magnetic, perhaps because of his well-meaning criminality. The Goldfinch is a pleasure to read; with more economy to the brushstrokes, it might have been great. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Oct. 22) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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