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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.

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The signet ring and the address with the green door turn out to belong to an antiques store in New York – one of those genteel places open “by appointment only” – whose kindly owner, James Hobart, provides a haven for Theo and takes him on as his informal apprentice. “Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, 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.”

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There, Theo also briefly reunites with the red-haired girl, Pippa, who is also traumatized by the attack.

Then Theo’s alcoholic dad, a former actor turned professional gambler who had abandoned both his son and his wife, shows up, gets rid of everything Theo’s mother left in their apartment, and whisks Theo off to a deserted suburb of Las Vegas, where even Domino’s won’t deliver. “My new room felt so bare and lonely that, after I unpacked my bags, I left the sliding door of the closet open so I could see my clothes hanging inside,” Theo says.

Theo is still desperately missing his mother. The pain crops up without warning, as when he can’t tell her when his dad takes his girlfriend, Xandra, to a Bon Jovi concert: “It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact,” he thinks.

“The Goldfinch” is most often described as Dickensian, which is an apt comparison, both for the big, entertaining plot and the orphan who gets swept along on adventures. Theo most reminded me of Pip in “Great Expectations” with his eccentric guardians, shadowy benefactor, and his tendency to mold himself after whatever stronger personality is in his life at the moment. Mrs. Barbour has a few echoes of Miss Havisham, and the red-haired girl, Pippa, serves as his unobtainable Estella.

However, his best and only friend in Las Vegas comes straight from “Oliver Twist.” Boris is a Ukrainian Artful Dodger with serious substance-abuse issues and a budding criminal genius. Boris provides most of the levity in “The Goldfinch” and is as terrific a character as he is appalling an influence on Theo, who, after his mom’s death, lacks any kind of center beyond the painting.

Boris nicknames Theo “Potter” (as in Harry Potter), for his naivete, but there is a certain amount of ironic humor when Boris tries to teach Theo to shoplift, since in this case, the student is the one who has already pulled off a multimillion-dollar art heist. And Theo isn’t so much innocent as traumatized, as Tartt shows him struggling with grief and post-traumatic stress disorder and self-medicating with alcohol and whatever pills Boris can supply.

“I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different,” Boris notes later of their wild days in the desert.

If the first half of the novel is a coming-of-age story, the second is the reckoning as Theo gets pulled into the shadowy underworld of forgery, art thieves, and organized crime. Near the end, “The Goldfinch” shifts into thriller territory, with a few attendant implausibilities. But by that point, a reader is happy to follow Theo – who, like another Dickens character, most definitely is not the hero of his own life – wherever “The Goldfinch” flies.

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.


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