“Beauty is terror,” says the classics professor in “The Secret History,” the novel that launched Donna Tartt’s career. Two decades after her debut’s publication and subsequent canonization as a best-selling cult novel, Tartt has taken that sentiment to its literal extreme: “The Goldfinch” is set in motion by terrorist bombs that blow a New York art gallery to smithereens.
Narrator Theodore Decker, a scholarship kid on his way to a disciplinary meeting at his tony Manhattan high school, survives. His mother does not. Crawling from the wreckage (in an excruciating and beautiful scene that seems to last a lifetime), Theo snatches “The Goldfinch,” a 1654 work by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. His subsequent experiences — and the rest of the 771-page novel — are defined by that day’s events. The plot’s many twists carry him from Manhattan to Las Vegas and back.
“The Goldfinch” shares with “The Secret History” a preoccupation with high culture, or at least the sort of knowledge gleaned from a solid liberal-arts education. (“The Little Friend,” the Southern Gothic novel Tartt published between the other two, is all but forgettable.) Tartt saturates “The Goldfinch” with references to Dutch painting and French literature; Theo eventually becomes a dealer of historically significant American furniture.
More contemporary, decidedly more middlebrow allusions — the Jacques Tourneur film “I Walked With a Zombie,” the band the Magnetic Fields — find their way into the novel as well. All these references can conjure the anxiety of a college party at which everyone is trying to wow one another with their knowledge of arcana.
Which is the point. Theo — like Richard Papen, narrator of “The Secret History” — is a striver dazzled by beauty. In his moral universe, there are very neat lines between the tasteful and the tacky, between those who can appreciate culture and those who cannot.
At times, a correlation between taste and character plays out a little too tidily. Theo’s caddish father, for instance, drives a shiny new Lexus and mourns a failed acting career, the apex of which consisted of bit parts in second-rate films. His erratic girlfriend, Xandra, hates New York but loves Las Vegas, vanilla lip gloss, and halter dresses.
Theo’s pity is tweaked when he discovers her cache of stolen jewelry: “[I]t made me weirdly sad to see what she’d chosen — not the pearls or ruby brooch, but inexpensive things including . . . [a] charm bracelet, ajingle with horseshoes and ballet slippers and four-leaf clovers,” he laments.
But the rich are not exempt from Theo’s scorn. A frosty heiress showcases an antique table “on its own with a light on it, and all the stuff arranged so you’re not supposed to touch it,” he complains to a fellow connoisseur, comparing the display to “those scenes with the taxidermy animals at the Natural History Museum.”
In fact, a book about how people sell beautiful things to insecure rich people courts any number of Marxist theorists half-remembered from Lit Crit 101. Unless it’s possible to hit the high notes of Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” entirely by accident, Tartt seems to deliberately invite this kind of analysis. Do her allusions enhance the novel in any way? Not really, but they will tickle many of the same people who get a thrill from catching a Magnetic Fields reference.
But that makes the novel seem far more boring — and more highbrow — than it actually is. Theo is a lively, inviting storyteller, and Tartt keeps the plot humming along — a major feat in such a big book. Drugs, theft, and murder all do their part to prevent the reader from becoming too agitated when Tartt’s signature stream-of-consciousness narration runs a bit too long.
The book’s biggest strength — and it’s a really big one — are its characters. As readers of “The Secret History” will recall, Tartt has an almost supernatural ability to make her characters seem glamorous and infinitely fascinating; even brief sketches, in her hands, become tantalizing glimpses into the unfathomably exciting lives of crooked antiques dealers, desiccated aristos, and tattooed gangsters.
But her most breathtaking creation is Theo’s friend Boris, a misguided pan-Slavic US émigré by way of Australia. That Tartt manages to write thousands of words of dialogue in his astonishing patois — a dialect that actually evolves as the book progresses and Boris’s English improves — is a delight and a marvel.
While Boris and company likely aren’t quite enough to propel “The Goldfinch” into the pantheon of beloved cult novels, the book will satisfy those looking for the kinds of characters only Tartt can create.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson @gmail.com.