Tuesday, December 31, 2013


      Donna Tartt seems to publish a new novel about every eleven years or so.  I was just about to dive into the first (that I know about) The Secret History, when I kept reading about her latest The Goldfinch. I was hooked by the reviews.
     The novel is told as a flashback between bookends of almost the same scene.  I had to go back to the beginning to discover that everything that was going to happen had been revealed.  (Nothing new there--Harper Lee does it on page one of To Kill a Mockingbird.)

     The main character Theo is about eleven when the actual story begins, living with his divorced mom in their New York apartment, setting out for a parent conference after his suspension from school.  On the way, though, nauseous from the cab ride, they hop out ahead of their destination and because of the rain and time they have to kill before the appointment, they go into a museum with a visiting exhibit of European artworks from around the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Anatomy Lesson is there, along with a small painting by Fabritius, The Goldfinch, a small painting of a bird, its leg held by a barely visible wire.

     Along with a number of school groups, Theo also notices with interest a red-haired girl there with an elderly man he assumes is her grandfather.  While the two make eye contact, they never speak, yet he is intrigued by her.  As they get ready to leave, standing near the gift shop, his mother decides to go back for one more look at The Anatomy Lesson, but Theo decides to wait for her, hoping for a closer brush with the girl.  Instead, someone rushes in, there's a huge explosion, and he comes to later to find himself in the middle of the destruction of a bombing, presumably an act of terrorism.  The old man, seriously injured near him, gives him a ring and a package.  Unable to find his mother, Theo picks his way out of the museum to the chaos outside and finally decides to follow their established emergency plan if separated:  he goes home.

     The story from that point takes him to the antique shop where the old man had been co-owner, to Las Vegas for awhile to live with his alcoholic, gambling father and his girlfriend Xandra, where he meets Boris, a Russian immigrant in his class who becomes his closest adolescent companion until he leaves and returns to New York.

    Tartt weaves a long, beautifully told, even painful story as Theo reaches adulthood, taking the old man's place as a partner in the antique shop, but also dabbling with  art fraud and caught up in illegal drug use.  As important to him as his friend Boris, his partner Hobie and the mysterious red-haired Pippa, are the wealthy family of a classmate that took him in for awhile after the loss of his mother.  His life bears the indelible but inescapable mark of the tragedy at the museum, which he sees reflected in Pippa, also a scarred survivor.

     As a lover of museums, I find myself drawn to fiction--even nonfiction--about art and artists.  Reading this novel, I just assumed the work--like The Girl in Hyacinth Blue--was a fictional work of art, so my discovery after finishing the book that it exists, that my friend Carol, another voracious reader, had actually seen the painting at the Frick, means that now I have more research to do, another artist, another painting about which I must know more.  Maybe I'll figure out a way to visit the Frick Museum before the painting heads back to its usual place.

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