Clear off the biggest wall in the gallery of novels about beloved paintings. You’ll need lots of space for “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s giant new masterpiece about a small masterpiece by Carel Fabritius. Don’t worry if you can’t recall that name from a dark and somnolent art-history classroom. Though he was a celebrated student of Rembrandt, the Dutch painter was almost blasted into obscurity by a gunpowder explosion in 1654, a fatal accident that made his few extant paintings even rarer than Vermeer’s. But Tartt’s novel is no delicate study of a girl with a pearl earring. She places Fabritius’s tiny bird at the center of a capacious story that soars across the United States and around the planet, lighting on themes of beauty, family and destiny.
Tartt’s many fans have waited with great expectations since her previous book, “The Little Friend,” was published in 2002. While the world has been transformed over the past decade, one of the most remarkable qualities of “The Goldfinch” is that it arrives singed with 9/11 terror but redolent of a 19th-century novel. Indeed, Charles Dickens floats through these pages like Marley’s ghost. You can hear the great master in everything from the endlessly propulsive plot to the description of a minor character with a “cleft chin, doughball nose, tense slit of a mouth, all bunched tight in the center of a face which glowed a plump, inflamed, blood-pressure pink.”
There’s nothing slavish, though, about Tartt’s allusions to Dickens. She’s not writing an extension of “Great Expectations” such as Peter Carey’s marvelous “Jack Maggs.” Still, anyone who’s run through the streets of London with Pip and Estella will catch glimpses of those characters and others in “The Goldfinch.” And even if Tartt can’t write with Dickens’s speed, she knows how to create the same kind of intimate voice, laced with her own brand of mordant comedy and sorrow that makes us willing captives.
Although it opens on a Christmas Day, amid the festivities of the season, the story is framed by grief. Theo Decker is rotting in a hotel room in Amsterdam, sweaty with fever and narcotics, afraid to leave or even call for help. His only solace is a brief dream visit from his beloved mother, who died 14 years ago, when he was a mischievous eighth-grader.
“Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” Theo begins, and immediately we’re swept back to that calamitous spring day in New York when he and his mom darted into the Metropolitan Museum. Just moments after she explains the composition of Rembrandt’s unnerving “Anatomy Lesson,” Theo finds himself lying amid dozens of bodies flayed by a terrorist’s bomb. In the chaos of flesh and rubble, Theo comforts a dying old man and then stumbles out of the smoldering museum clutching Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” his mother’s favorite painting — saved from the flames of fate once again.
With its bloody ironies and nested coincidences, this explosive opening scene is awash with the concussive disorientation of the moment but also polished by years of regret. Amid the smoke and sirens, Theo is “gasping, half-choked with plaster dust,” already tormented by the illusion of culpability, by the endlessly rehearsed accusation that he could have placed his mother and himself somewhere else — anywhere else — that day. This is, among many other things, a novel of survivor’s guilt, of living in “the generalized miasma of shame and unworthiness and being-a-burden.”
With a Dutch master’s attention to detail, Tartt has created a narrative voice that is simultaneously immediate and retrospective, filled with the boy’s adolescent anxieties and the man’s fermented despair. “How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother?” Theo says. “Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”
While grief may be the novel’s bassline, Theo’s wit and intelligence provide the book’s endearing melody. Orphaned by the Met bombing, he and that stolen painting drift from one temporary family to another, all of them composed of vibrant characters that he turns over in his mind like a connoisseur of human personality. “How had I fetched up into this strange new life?” Theo wonders, as a series of elaborately developed episodes shows off the range of Tartt’s skill. In Manhattan, she conjures up a brittle Park Avenue clan with all its unconscious privilege and gold-plated dysfunction. In Las Vegas, she’s just as attentive to the tragicomedy of a gambler and his floozy girlfriend riding to ruin on inebriated fantasies of easy money.
The novel reaches its greatest luster in an antique store that Theo finds by following the mysterious instructions of that dying old man in the Met. It’s a magical place “where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world.” There, under the tutelage of an absent-minded restorer, Theo enjoys a bit of restoration himself. His appreciation for beautiful old things is refined and nurtured — along with his indelible love for a wounded young woman who lives among the antiques.
Tartt has created a rare treasure: a long novel that never feels long, a book worthy of our winter hibernation by the fire. In fact, toward page 500, a couple of hundred pages after most novelists would have packed up their sentences and closed the covers, she recharges the plot by introducing another complex strain of intrigue involving international gangsters. And so, at the very moment when you fear it might stall, “The Goldfinch” takes flight again.
But the Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.
Look here: A great novel can do that, too.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
You can see Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” at the Frick Collection in New York until Jan. 19.
By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown. 771 pp. $30