Donna Tartt's New Novel of Art and Graft

Literature's glittering cicada returns with the beguiling Goldfinch

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Tartt has a special gift for writing about outsiders who come in from the cold. She did it in The Secret History with Richard Papen, a Gatsbyesque nobody from nowhere at an elite Vermont college, and she does it here. Entering Hobie's shop, Theo becomes a sorcerer's apprentice, learning "the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents ... " Theo also gains entrée into a wealthy Upper East Side family called the Barbours (presumably named for the hearty British outerwear brand), and Boris initiates him into a pan-European criminal underground. However many times Tartt performs it, the trick never gets less magical.

The Goldfinch is not a perfect book. The prose is slightly overegged--I'd peg it at about 15% too long--and Theo is, like Richard before him, a bit of what on the Internet is called a Mary Sue: so passive and colorless that you wonder why all these fascinating people don't ditch him and hang out with each other instead.

But Theo wonders that too. He never gets comfortable--"Never forget you aren't one of them," a friend whispers. (Farther up that same page, fans will spot a cameo by The Secret History's Francis Abernathy.) Fundamentally homeless, he becomes an existential hero, finding patterns in his rudderless life, trying to convince himself that they mean something and sometimes failing. "If you scratched very deep at that idea of pattern," he thinks, "you hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you'd ever looked at or thought of as light."

But in life, as in art, there are always patterns, however shallow, and they have a way of finding Theo. Here's one of them: the blast that begins the book is the echo of an earlier one, the one that killed the real Fabritius in 1654 when a gunpowder factory next to his studio exploded. His Goldfinch survived it. Theo must learn to survive too.

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