By Geoff Nicholson
2:50 PM EDT, October 17, 2013
Nobody would file the novels of Donna Tartt under "thrillers." But that is what she writes. And without a great plot, any thriller — even a beautifully written and very literary one — falls apart. Her previous novel, the self-consciously Southern Gothic "The Little Friend," was, despite its promising subject matter of meth and death, a little lacking in plot and disappointed some fans of her debut, "The Secret History."
Tartt's latest, "The Goldfinch" — only her third novel in 20-plus years — coheres magnificently. More ambitious and accomplished than "The Secret History," the narrative is tauter even as the book's scope is wider, with events spanning a decade or more and scenes set in multiple locations in America and Europe. The stakes are higher, and the characters, drawn from a wider social milieu, are downright more interesting.
One of the greatest of Tartt's many gifts is her ability to assure readers that they're in the hands of a trustworthy storyteller. Her novels always feature surprising, in some cases preposterous, narrative elements, but she makes us believe them. She'll wrong-foot us, but she won't cheat us. Characters will certainly go off the rails, but the plot won't. This is an amazing achievement.
"The Goldfinch," on the surface, definitely has preposterous elements. When the book opens, its narrator, Theo Decker, is 13 years old, visiting an exhibition of Dutch art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. He lingers in the gift shop while she goes back for another look at Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson."
At that point, a (fictional) terrorist bomb tears the museum apart. Having failed to find his mother, who we eventually learn has died in the explosion, Theo emerges from the wreckage, carrying with him "The Goldfinch," a (real) 17th century painting by Carel Fabritius, an artist who died in a gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1654.
Theo holds on to the painting, becoming increasingly obsessed with it over the years. After his mother's death he goes to stay with the rich, elegant and sometimes insufferable Barbour family on Park Avenue, later becoming engaged to the daughter, Kitsey.
But in between the bomb and the betrothal is a great deal of incident — sometimes chaotic, often deeply moving, occasionally unexpectedly comic — including a spell in Las Vegas with his errant father, a man addicted first to alcohol, then gambling, and saddled with a floozy girlfriend named Xandra, a house on an unfinished subdivision in the desert and finally with debts he can't possibly pay off.
At Theo's new school in Vegas, he befriends Boris, the son of a brutish Ukrainian oil worker. They drink, take drugs, commit petty crimes, pursue girls in a half-hearted way.
Theo soon returns to New York, completes his schooling and as an adult becomes a drug addict and an antiques dealer — an increasingly dodgy one, in fact, eventually getting into trouble with some dangerous customers.
Throughout all this, the painting remains a kind of talisman, something permanent and authentic in a world of threatening uncertainties, though when needed it can also be used as collateral for shady criminal dealings.
Reading "The Goldfinch," there were times when I did wonder if Tartt was indulging in post-modernist games with the reader, playing spin the bottle among various literary genres: coming-of-age novel, addict's confession, art heist, unrequited love story, Dickensian panorama. (There are a number of explicit references to Dickens in the book.)
But no, I think she really isn't that kind of writer. She touches all these extravagantly diverse bases because she can and because the novel demands it. There are bravura descriptions of landscapes and cities, shrewd dissections of human motivations and self-deceptions, convincing and sometimes very witty dialogue spoken by characters from wildly different backgrounds.
Still, even given "The Goldfinch's" inventiveness, I suspect that for Tartt's true believers — and this is a writer who doesn't just have fans, she has obsessives, even cult followers — nothing will ever surpass the sui generis originality of "The Secret History." That book attracted readers who saw (or wanted to see) themselves in its knowing world of decadence, pagan rituals, incest and murder, complete with quotations in the original Greek. It was a hard act for anyone to follow.
Five hundred pages into "The Goldfinch" — and at 784 pages, it's not a slim read — Theo is asked some major questions by one of the book's minor characters, a Russian chauffeur called Guyri: "First question: does God have sense of humor? Second question: does God have cruel sense of humor? Such as: does God toy with us and torture us for His own amusement, like vicious child with garden insect?" Theo, at this point in the story, has no answers.
Much of what happens to him in the novel does seem random and cruel, which in turn molds his character, not always for the better. He doesn't blame a malicious deity, and yet he inevitably wrestles with the randomness of existence. Art, as represented by the painting of the goldfinch, becomes a touchstone of order.
Toward the end of the novel, Theo says, "To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I only see a pattern because I've been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it's there."
Novels always, inevitably, involve pattern-making; thrillers especially so. Sometimes the pattern seems imposed by an author who's playing god. There's no danger of that with Donna Tartt.
For all its artfulness, and despite a satisfying and wholly unexpected denouement, "The Goldfinch" both describes and understands the arbitrariness of life and never makes it seem simpler or more orderly than the fascinating, troubling mess it is.
Nicholson's latest book is "Walking in Ruins."
Little, Brown and Co.: 784 pp., $30
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