The Goldfinch is neither a whodunit, like Donna Tartt’s previous novel The Little Friend, nor a whydunit, like her beloved best-selling debut, 1992’s The Secret History, but death stalks its pages nonetheless. One hopes the grim reaper remembered to wear comfortable shoes given the amount of ground traversed by this rather bewildering book.
The Goldfinch details — over a decade and a half and close to 800 pages — the aftermath of the bombing of a New York museum. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives the blast, but his mother does not. In the chaos, he walks out with the titular painting, a real piece by the 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. Down the years, the artwork is both a source of huge anxiety to Theo and the sole fixed point in his universe as he lives with a tony Manhattan family, then his Las Vegas-dwelling gambler father, and finally a West Village furniture restorer named Hobie. Along the way, Theo enjoys interrupted friendships with another survivor of the museum attack named Pippa and with Boris, a boozy, shady Vegas school chum who reemerges to power the book’s thrillerish climax in Amsterdam.
What do all these slices of Theo’s life have to do with the price of tea in China? Or even one another? That’s not a question this book, which is long on well-drawn incident but short on engaging plot, adequately answers. In The Secret History, Tartt created an unlikely, yet believable and complete, world of homicidal Greek-studying undergrads. The Goldfinch unfolds in what should feel like a far more realistic post-9/11 landscape, yet the result is less convincing as its set pieces jostle uncomfortably together. Like the beautiful, antique-looking furniture Hobie builds using materials from different ages, the novel has too many disparate parts to be a genuine treasure. B-