“The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s third novel in 20 years, set in an opaquely rendered Manhattan of the 21st century, has followed its predecessors, selling robustly, while its eponym, a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, has been drawing crowds to the Frick. In an apparently serendipitous feat of cross-promotion, the painting currently appears at the museum as part of an exhibition of Dutch masterworks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, a show that has drawn more than 61,000 visitors since its debut in October.
article by By GINIA BELLAFANTE
Fabritius, a gifted student of Rembrandt’s, painted his goldfinch perched high in the frame and affixed to a delicate, unobtrusive chain. The artist died not long after, victim of an explosion that claimed much of his native city of Delft. In both its seemingly intended and accidental meanings, the painting captures what can feel like the strange nature of captivity — we often can’t see to what or whom others are held hostage, and we rarely know what will take us. The teenage Theo Decker, the novel’s protagonist, roams the city like a feral child while imprisoned by the consuming grief he feels for his mother, who is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mother and son had been viewing “The Goldfinch.”
Though the novel travels extensively — settling for a rich, discomfiting period in Las Vegas — it is a novel of Manhattan adolescence, a distinctly particular variant of it, as genealogically linked to J. D. Salinger as to any other forebear. There is Holden Caulfield’s urbanity; his mischief and failure (in both “Catcher in the Rye” and Theo’s story, trouble at private school propels the action). There is Holden Caulfield’s eye for the inauthentic, the perilous interactions with the adult world transpiring in a dreamscape New York — the specter of the dead.
What is striking about “The Goldfinch” of 2013 is that it is as much a narrative of post-9/11 New York as it isn’t. The bombing barely registers in the consciousness of the city — it is Theo’s tragedy alone. The menace is intimate: vagrants wander around in the morning, in good neighborhoods. There is little evidence of Citarella or Scandinavian strollers. The New York the author evokes is very much the New York of the middle of the last century. Right after the bombing, Theo is discharged to the family of a school friend, the Barbours of Park Avenue who live in an apartment with so little light that the plants die monthly, and so little sense of animation or connection that evening meals typically run along the lines of cocktail nuts and canapés.
The interior of the Barbour home is stodgy and frozen, without the lacquer and gloss or any of the other decorative touchstones of the modern Upper East Side dwelling. Mrs. Barbour, the matriarch, speaks in swift, declarative sentences, of the kind that never put one at ease and yet never contain enough emotion to unsettle. The trends of urban helicopter parenting and aggressive domesticity are waves she seems to have missed, as blindly as she must have ignored tattoos. Even weekday breakfast is an anachronism: the maid making French toast. “When I asked Mrs. Barbour where the washing machine was,” Theo tells us, “she looked at me as if I’d asked for lye and lard to boil up for soap.”
In recent interviews, Ms. Tartt has said that she has little interest in social realism — in contemporary depictions of marriage, parenting or divorce — and “The Goldfinch” in some sense suggests that she really means it. At the heart of the novel is an idealization of a family structure most resonant of New York of the 1970s — the period of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The Goodbye Girl,” when partners vanished to the winds of self-interest and single parents stood with their single children as friends and warriors against the world.
In the context of the book’s monstrous parents, Theo’s mother stands alone, cultivated and caring in her four-room apartment stuffed to the ceiling with books and other means of enlightenment. This is the world of cheap takeout ascending to the level of magic, and filial mind-meld that has little to do with money, and in ways that feel out of our time, there’s little sense that wealth matters. Ms. Tartt may not have set out to say anything about family life in the city now, but she conveys a great deal by omission. This is not a world of $700-an-hour SAT tutors.