In 2001, This American Life aired a segment by Starlee Kine, in which she revisited her childhood acting teacher. In the 1980s, when Kine had taken classes, everyone pretended to be an orphan. But now (or in the “now” of 2001), absolutely no one did.
That segment has resonated with me over the years because, as a child, I had the same fantasies. I was obsessed with Annie, playing the soundtrack so much that my younger sister destroyed it with toothpaste so she wouldn’t have to hear “Tomorrow” again. I read novels in which orphaned children are rescued by generous benefactors—The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, the Boxcar Children series—over and over again. To be an orphan was a life of poverty and tribulation but also one of freedom, and it seemed to always eventually result in loving substitute parents who had much more money than those you had lost. I knew this wasn’t reality, of course, but dreams of being a Dickensian waif occupied at least as much of my consciousness as Judy Blume.
I was reminded of all this as I made my way through Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown), her first in 11 years. The Dickens parallels are obvious—there’s more than one shade of Great Expectations throughout the very long (784 pages) text—but somewhere in the middle of the book, after protagonist Theo Decker has in fact been orphaned (and has had the least eventful cross-country Greyhound bus ride in the history of America to end up back in Manhattan), I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my childhood reading habits. Despite the death, destruction, and copious drug use, reading The Goldfinch felt very much like reading a grown-up mishmash of early 1980s YA novels and Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Tartt’s first two novels, 1992’s The Secret History and 2002’s The Little Friend, are both coming-of-age novels in certain ways, but neither is the Bildungsroman that The Goldfinch is. The book spans 14 years in the life of Theo Decker, starting in eighth grade, where an early morning visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sets in motion the chain of events, both tragic and fortuitous, that make up the novel.
While viewing an exhibition of Renaissance Dutch paintings with his mother, Theo sees a charming young girl at the museum with an elderly man. Then a bomb goes off. Theo’s mother is killed. The old man, just before he dies, gives Theo his ring and tells him to take a painting that has fallen on the ground with him. The painting, it turns out, is Carel Fabritus’ 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch.
The overarching plot of the novel involves the stolen painting, which is eventually stolen from Theo, and then from others, resulting in a climactic showdown in Amsterdam and then a lot of conversations about the meaning of art and life and morality. And yes, that’s about as tedious as you’d think. Fortunately, the four-fifths of the novel leading up to that climax is as lovely and moving as you could ever want a novel to be. After the death of his mother, Theo moves in with a rich classmate. It appears an adoption is eminent, but then his louche father reappears on the scene, possibly only for financial reasons, and Theo is taken away from the only life he’s ever known to a desolate suburb of Las Vegas.
It’s the scenes in Vegas that provide the emotional heft of the novel, as Theo becomes fast friends with a Ukrainian student named Boris. Together they take a lot of drugs—a lot—and slowly grow up. The section reads like a warped version of the Blume classic Tiger Eyes (in which a New Jersey teen relocates out west after the tragic death of her father) and could have easily stood alone as a novel in its own right.
But Tartt is ultimately more interested in Dickensian plots and characters than plumbing emotional depths. Theo returns to New York and is reunited with the partner of the man who died in the museum, who takes him in and teaches him the antique business. Then other characters from his past reappear on the scene, more plot ensues, more drugs are taken, and finally there is Amsterdam.
It may sound like I’m revealing a lot of the plot here, but I’m not. If you’ve read any Dickens at all, you know that characters appear and reappear, and a coincidence is never just that. And the plotting of The Goldfinch is fun, until the very, very end, which felt more than a little forced and tortuous.
Still, despite the ending, and despite her tendency to run-on her sentences just a little too long—she may be from Mississippi, but she’s not quite Faulknerian—The Goldfinch is Tartt’s best work yet. Read it for the novel within the novel, the story of an orphan, broken by grief and trauma, trying to find his place in the world, like Pip or Oliver Twist or Mary Lennox or Sara Crewes. The Goldfinch might not make you wish you were an orphan, but it will take you back to the days of reading in which you dreamed you were.