Having read all three of Donna Tartt’s novels within a month’s span, I was struck by how doggedly all of her protagonists hurl themselves toward peril in search of the impossible. In The Secret History, Richard Papen’s “longing for the picturesque at all costs” compels him to attempt to efface a self he sees as flawed and inferior, and to merge with a set of people he views as exalted and beautiful. Harriet Dufresnes of The Little Friend wants to take life, in all its sloppy injustice, and force it to conform to storybook narratives in which wrongdoers are always punished, and answers are always there if you look hard enough.
Theo Decker wants to leave the here and now altogether, be it through magic, or time travel, or, barring those, drugs. But he lives in a world that is unassailable in its crushing realities. When he is 13 years old, his mother is killed in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum. He survives, taking with him Carel Fabritius’ diminutive masterpiece, The Goldfinch, along with a ring from a dying man who presses him to take the painting to a place downtown called Hobart and Blackwell. “Ring the green bell,” instructs the man. So cleverly has Tartt already disoriented any sense of time and reality that he might as well have said, “Look for the lamppost,” or “Platform 9 ¾.”
On page 10 of the book, when Theo describes his mother working on a computer, I had to flip back to the beginning to find out why I had thought the book took place in the late mid-twentieth century. At the start of the story, Theo is holed up in an Amsterdam hotel, reading papers, searching the Dutch news on television. He is afraid “to telephone anybody,” a bit of language which put me in an old fashioned mindset, and he looks out the window to see people clattering “down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to their bicycles.” He goes on to describe the winter light as carrying “a chilly tone of 1943, privation and austerities, weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed.” When he tells you his mother died on April 10th, he merely says it was fourteen years ago. A few pages later, his mother will mention that being on the Upper East Side makes her feel she is in a time warp, because it’s where she first went when she came to the city.
It’s the kind of subtle, ingenious sleight-of-hand that unsettles a reader, so that, off your footing, you are ready to accept anything that comes next. You are now primed to take seriously Tartt’s numerous references to magic, whether in regards to parlor tricks, art, the selling of antique furniture, or time travel. If you read The Goldfinch, take note of how places and people are described, and you’ll be able to catalog the references to The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, and more. Watch, and see how Theo will walk through doors and be emotionally transported back in time.
Anyone who’s read Dickens will be able to draw comparisons between The Goldfinch and Dickens’ novels, and I could write an entirely different piece merely exploring this (entirely self-aware, on Tartt’s part) connection in detail. Instead, I will say simply that Tartt’s novel shares with some of Dickens’ work an outsized picaresque quality that somehow rings startlingly true to life; both authors possess the ability to suspend readers’ disbelief and make them recognize the familiar in the extremes of life, whether it’s the patinated dysfunction of an Upper East Side old money family, or the stark desperation of Theo’s alcoholic, abusive, gambling-addict father, or Theo’s best friend, Boris, the American by way of Australia, the Ukraine, and various other countries, who seems to be on the short road to hell but couldn’t be more pleased about it. Anyway, the comparison to Dickens is made both implicitly and explicitly in the book, though there’s also a strong comparison made to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in which the main character’s name is Fyodor, the Russian version of Theodore. Theo is called Fyodor at least once, and discusses the novel with Boris in a chapter entitled… The Idiot.
And all the time there is that magical painting, Theo’s tie to the past and to his mother. Theo, who sees himself as chained to a life that can be almost unbearably lonely and cruel, sees himself in the goldfinch: “There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching.” He takes the painting to rescue it, and then keeps it, at first because he is afraid it is too late to give it back, and then because he can’t.
There are so many more elements to this novel that I was overwhelmed by Tartt’s breadth of knowledge, and even moreso by her ability to keep each piece completely organic to the story. But, as Tartt herself points out, “…that’s what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velázquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick– but, step closer? It falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether.” I wouldn’t call it a joke, exactly. It’s just great art.