All writers begin as readers. This is where we fall in love with story. We are addicted to that feeling. You know the one: when you open a book and read a few words, a few sentences. And you just know . . . there's a zing, a little buzz of excitement. Right away, you can sense that there is a journey ahead, and it's going to be wonderful.
As I opened The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, I felt as though I'd stepped through a doorway. Right away, I was a reader again. The early pages drip with detail, coming vibrantly alive with character. So vivid are they with sound and color, that I was startled by their intensity and by the surge of feeling I had right away for Theo Decker, the boy at the center of the story, and his sweet, fumbling mother. I was already deeply involved with her, and with their relationship, when he loses her in a terrible explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The event and its aftermath are so real on the page that my ears practically rang. Theo's terror, confusion, and despair are palpable.
This is the moment at which Theo's life begins to unravel. Prior to the explosion, he was living alone with his mother, abandoned by his father (who was a cad to begin with). So there's no soft place for him to land after the tragedy. Theo's downward spiral, which is the heart of this story, is as captivating as it is hard to watch.
Populated by an enormous cast of characters, Tartt's epic story could have easily become muddled. But each portrait is deftly, lovingly drawn. Theo is a living, breathing boy--one who I alternately wanted to comfort, reprimand, or turn over to the police. From the upper-crust family of Theo's best friend, Andy Barbour, who takes him in for a time; to Theo's edgy, sad con man of a father, who suddenly returns; down to the doorman, Goldie--each character, no matter how small his role, leaps off the page.
Tartt has a bone-deep knowledge of her characters, their flaws and foibles, and the secret heart that beats beneath every surface. And her ear for dialect and cadence creates mesmerizing dialogue between them.
No less stellar is her sense of place. As the book careens through several distinct periods of time in Theo's life, Tartt roots the reader in each scene with striking detail, capturing diverse energies--from an Amsterdam hotel room to the distinct neighborhoods of New York City, from the sprawl of post-real estate boom Las Vegas to the basement workshop of Hobart and Blackwell, the antique shop where Theo finally, for a time, finds a semblance of a home.
A pulsing story filled with mystery and adventure, this novel explores what it means to be human, to love, to grieve, and why we scrabble to hold on to anything that is lasting and true.
The Goldfinch is a journey and Tartt is our knowing, canny guide. Each step she takes is intentional, drawing us down a path that at every turn reveals something rich, terrible, tragic, or beautiful. The Goldfinch is an experience, offered in a flow as layered and complex as life itself.
Lisa Unger is the New York Times bestselling author of Ink and Bone.
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