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The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt's long-awaited new novel follows Theo Decker, a young orphan who takes possession of a legendary painting.

By Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic / October 17, 2013

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, Little, Brown and Company, 784 pages

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There’s a pretty easy test to see if Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, is for you. When confronted with an almost 800-page book, is your initial reaction: “If I dropped this on my foot, I could seriously do some damage,” or “Best. Spider-killing Weapon. Ever.”?

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If so, there is plenty of terrific fiction this fall that clocks in under 500 pages, such as James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird,” which also features an orphan and an avian metaphor.

But for those who like big, twisty books, “The Goldfinch” is a hefty delight.

Tartt proved she knew how to go big with her debut novel, 1992’s much-loved cult novel,“The Secret History,” in which cloistered Classics students at a New England college turn murderous. While she averages about one book a decade, those books are steeped in a rare kind of storytelling that a certain kind of reader (namely this one) can happily get lost in. Tartt’s books submerge you for the duration until you emerge, blinking, in the sunlight at the end, wondering how the laundry pile got so big and just how many meals you might have missed.

“The Goldfinch,” in which Tartt explores art and loss, takes its title from the favorite painting of 13-year-old Theo Decker’s mom. As the book opens Theo, having been suspended from school, is being taken by his mom to see Carel Fabritius’s miniature masterpiece (an actual painting belonging to a museum in The Hague).

“It was a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale, ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle,” Theo says.

Fabritius, who was Rembrandt’s student and Vermeer’s teacher, died the same year he painted “The Goldfinch," killed when a gunpowder factory exploded in Delft in 1654. The explosion also destroyed most of his work: less than a dozen paintings remain, including the little bird on his perch.

“Even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steadfast and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

Theo, however, is less struck by the art than by a red-haired girl visiting the museum with her uncle when an explosion rocks the museum, killing Theo’s lovely mother and destroying the life Theo would have had if she’d been there to oversee it. (“She cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary.”)

In the confusion after the terrorist attack, Theo first comforts the girl’s dying uncle, who gives him a signet ring and an address. Then, in a state of shock, the boy walks out of the museum with the painting.

The stolen artwork, which Theo hides over the course of years, serves as his talisman and also twists him into fits of guilt and terror that he’ll get caught.

“If our secrets define us, as opposed to the face we show to the world: then the painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am.”

Although centered around a miniature, “The Goldfinch” has a more expansive geographical canvas than Tartt’s two previous works, stretching from New York to Las Vegas and then Amsterdam.

After a few months living with his geeky friend and his family of brittle New York blue-bloods, Theo starts finding a sense of normalcy. The Barbours are kind, in their chilly way. Mrs. Barbour champions Theo because he once defended her son, Andy, from bullies. As for sweet, socially inept Andy, he would be perfectly happy to have Theo stay forever, especially in lieu of his nightmarish older brother, Pratt.

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