Where do I begin? The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch. It still hasn’t entirely sunk in that Donna Tartt has written another novel; that it is out this year; that it is called The Goldfinch. And yet I have read a proof copy of it, all 771 pages, kindly sent to me by someone at Little, Brown.
I read her two previous novels quite close together when I was about 14 or 15, and loved them both, The Secret History in particular. It is the only book I have read more than once and I still remember scenes from it as if I saw them as a film, or as if I was there – Francis’ country house in particular. Bunny coming downstairs in pyjamas with ruffled hair for a drink; someone playing the piano; Camilla cutting her foot on a stone in the lake; and Richard looking at her ‘dusty boy feet’ in the kitchen, overwhelmed by her beauty.
There were ten years between the publication of The Secret History and that of The Little Friend in 2002, and now we have waited eleven years for The Goldfinch. And, to ask that ridiculous question, was it worth the wait?
If you love Tartt’s novels, then there is no doubt, of course it was worth it. Just to have more of her words is reason enough to wait eleven years. Obviously I had read the snippets of information about the plot of The Goldfinch, but it did not really prepare me for the reality of it.
Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, miraculously survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is bewildered by his new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld.
That, taken from the back of my proof copy, does not even touch the surface. There is infinitely more. Each phrase there, each thing that happens to Theo, is so much more complicated and has so much more depth than it appears to. The simplest things have such resonance.
A lot of The Goldfinch is about the question of what is the right thing to do – what is best, what should we do, what would our mothers do? Are they always right? What about our fathers?
Theo’s mother is a ‘presence’ throughout this novel, and it occurred to me that no other parent has played such a crucial role in Tartt’s other novels. In The Secret History, Richard’s parents feature only in the early stages of the book as he applies to college. His father wants him to take over the family business, and his mother is a housewife. In my memory they are like zombie cartoons, stock characters that Richard uses to demonstrate to the reader how empty and meaningless his life in Plano was before he came to Vermont. In The Little Friend, our central characters Harriet and Hely seem to operate almost entirely independently of their parents, despite being about ten years old. Harriet’s mother is sickly and wafts in the background; the only time she or any other parent has any influence is when Harriet is sent away to camp. It’s been ten years since I read either novel, so forgive me if I am wrong, but Theo’s mother seems like the first of Tartt’s fictional parents to be entirely good, entirely wanted and loved by the child. Though perhaps this is because Theo loses her when he is so young, and he is so lost without her.
Theo is indeed lost. He gets lost again and again and again in this story. And the reader gets lost with him. He is an entirely immersive narrator, and even when parts of his story are bleak and I didn’t necessarily enjoy reading about them (particularly the middle section during his teens), I still wanted to be there with him. You want Theo to survive, even when he makes mistakes and acts like a complete arsehole. Which he does, on several occasions. You will him to make the right decision. But of course, Tartt is asking us throughout the novel, what is the right decision? And how do you know it’s right?
The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel (though it has been more than 20 years since the first), but having read all of them I can see how she has matured as a novelist. While The Secret History and The Little Friend both had philosophical elements, The Goldfinch is an exploration of not only the protagonist’s story but also of the possibility of fate and limits of morality. That said, I did not find it too overreaching or preachy; and its narrative does not get lost in philosophising about life separate from the thrust of the plot. It is literally longer in length but also feels deeper and wider than the two earlier novels, like it contains more – it is not just Theo’s story in relation to the painting, but it is the whole of his world and his life; and the lives of so many around him. This one small painting of a goldfinch is the centre of Theo’s world but also the entire book, the entire story.
As I began to read I was terrified that I would not like the latest novel by my favourite writer; but I was happily enveloped in Tartt’s style again, her world that she creates for her readers, and for her characters to inhabit. They could all plausibly exist within the same world, and it felt good to be back. I had really missed reading Donna Tartt’s work and I felt relieved to be reading her again. The Goldfinch is entirely new, entirely different and modern; but it still feels like Donna Tartt, it is still intelligent and beautiful, complex and real.
It may be another ten+ years that we have to wait for another Tartt novel – but it will be worth it; and we have this to sustain us in the meantime.
Published by Little, Brown in the UK and US on 22nd October 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.