THE GOLDFINCH. By Donna Tartt. Little Brown. 771 pages. $30.
At the center of Donna Tartt's excellent third novel, "The Goldfinch," is a 17th century Dutch painting, also titled "The Goldfinch." Carel Fabritius, the artist, painted his little masterpiece in 1654, the year he died.
The circumstances of his death (he was killed when the Delft gunpowder magazine exploded, destroying his studio and most of his work) connect specifically to a catastrophe in the opening pages of Tartt's novel but also to ideas about impermanence and suffering.
The little bird of the painting is very much a bird - not humanized or idealized. He is a lonely pet, chained to his perch. That's all: "There's only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape... And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching."
Over the nearly 800 pages of her novel, Tartt lets anomalies and mysteries collect around Fabritius's modest goldfinch, "one of those images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower."
Theo Decker, the boy hero and narrator of "The Goldfinch" is himself a lonely little captive, one of those orphans that are a staple of 19th century literature. He is 13 when we meet him, on the way with his mother to a conference at his school, and expecting to be suspended for smoking. His mother is a beautiful, idealized creature, "glossy and nervy and stylish as a racehorse." With her, Theo would have had a merry life. Instead, they duck into the Metropolitan Museum to kill time on the way to their appointment, a terrorist bomb explodes, and Theo's mother dies. Before the bomb, she has introduced him to "The Goldfinch," the first painting she ever loved. Theo will say, as an adult, that life is a sinkhole - but it also offers up moments and objects of beauty.
Late in the novel, James Hobart (Hobie), a steadfast friend to our boy hero, says in wonder, "It does all swing around strangely sometimes, doesn't it?" Indeed! Tartt's novels have all dealt in strangeness, sometimes in the guise of enchantment, more often in the form of catastrophe. The museum explosion and aftermath include helpings of each - the catastrophe closing out one life and the enchantment opening the door into another, and stranger, one. After the explosion, Theo finds himself in the rubble with a dying man who gives him a heavy gold ring with the instruction, "Hobart and Blackwell... Ring the green bell." The dying man's other instruction is more fraught: he notices "The Goldfinch" in the debris and tells Theo to take it.
Tartt plants allusions to Dickens throughout her novel. The message from the lips of a dying man is just the kind of coincidence that Dickens liked to stage, and the green bell leads Theo to a foster family straight out of the Dickensian cast list. In a shop that he never opens, amid a nest of antique curiosities, Hobie lives with Pippa, the ward of his friend Welty, who died in the museum.
With Hobie, Theo finds "a pleasing atmosphere of mind: foggy, autumnal, a mild and welcoming micro-climate that made me feel safe and comfortable in his company." Pippa is part of the attraction. Another motherless child and fellow-survivor of the bomb, she is irresistible, the "missing kingdom," the "golden thread," the "morphine lollipop." Theo will spend a lifetime loving and losing her.
Against the pleasing, home-like atmosphere at Hobie's, Tartt sets other environments and other contenders for Theo's soul. He drifts along, staying for a while with the Barbours, a Park Avenue family, and for a disastrous two-year period, with his own scamming dad in Vegas, before settling in for the duration with Hobie. In a long and intricately plotted novel, Tartt's hero discovers and re-discovers the inter-dependence of good and bad.
Always, the pure light of "The Goldfinch" offsets the murky decadence of Theo's adult affairs. He becomes a drug addict and a shifty antiques dealer who mixes up with the Russian mafia - but, as Hobie says in another context, "the damage is part of the attraction." Tartt is working with a Fall template: salvation and ruination mix freely, both part of providence. It's an old-fashioned notion for an old-fashioned book. The "shameful, threadbare self" wants all the wrong things but can still be saved by the right ones (mostly love, sacrifice and beauty).
Tartt's raucous novel closes quietly with conversion and rebirth, hinged to the tiny image of a captured bird. In his final thoughts, Theo nods to the bird's vital beauty: "It is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.