Mississippi writer Donna Tartt's third novel, "The Goldfinch," is in many ways a tour de force--one has the feeling that she possesses the writing razzle-dazzle to pull off almost anything on the printed page, and frequently she does, skillfully moving this work from New York to Las Vegas, back to New York, then Amsterdam, then back again to New York over a period of some fourteen years in a boy's life, from the age of thirteen to twenty- seven, from the cusp of adolescence to young manhood. In literary parlance this type of novel is called a "Bildungsroman," a "coming of age" story that has many precedents in literature, the most well-known probably being the novels of Charles Dickens, such as "Oliver Twist," "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations." Superimposed upon this work is a sensational plot, involving terrorism, gambling, the underworld, drug use, art theft and even murder. It's almost as if Tartt said to herself, "I can't write just another coming of age story, I have to make it relevant to our times." And so she does, perhaps going overboard in the process, but that's my judgment--I happen to like subtlety, and we do not live in an age of understatement, nor does Donna Tartt-- if anything, she overstates and overwrites in all but a few of this novel's 775 pages.
This is an old fashioned, plot/character driven work that moves propulsively forward with elements of mystery and suspense. Setting too plays an important part and is vividly realized, especially in the New York and Las Vegas portions of the novel. Much of the tone of the work seems overwrought, but then so are the events and the protagonist, Theo Decker, who, in the opening section of the novel, experiences injury and the death of others in a horrific explosion in, of all places, an exhibition of Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo's escape, along with a masterpiece of Dutch painting, Carel Fabritius' "The Goldfinch," forms the backbone of the story, and it is ultimately the enduring power of art to bring about redemption and reconciliation that gives the novel its most powerful thematic element. If this is too blatantly stated in the last chapter of the book, it is nonetheless necessary, to give this work a sense of hope--otherwise we are left with a wreck of a human being who has desperately failed to put his life back together after the deaths of both his mother and father.
Though all the old fashioned elements are present, there is nothing in the least old fashioned about the way Ms. Tartt tells her story. It has all the gritty and at times ugly naturalistic detail of a contemporary novel, but it also has moments of sheer beauty and sensitivity, especially when it deals with the creative and restorative processes in life that make it worth living. The older antique dealer Hobie and the tough young Boris stand at opposite poles in Theo's life, the Apollo and Dionysus of his existence. These two characters are drawn so well that they almost leave young Theo in the shade, a sympathetic but at times rather pale protagonist in contrast to these two, one of whom regrettably is swallowed up by the end of the novel. Perhaps it is so with life, as the author hints, paying her highest tribute to a work of art like "The Goldfinch," a creation that not only escapes destruction but gives meaning to life after death.