“The Goldfinch”: Donna Tartt’s 21st-century Dickens
Donna Tartt's characters have a habit of falling into bubbles of one kind or another, places where they are a bit cut off from the world and where they grow fiercely attached to the handful of other people with whom they share their half-dreamlike existence. The friends of "The Secret History" are cocooned in their classics seminar at a secluded private college (a bubble within a bubble). The main character in "The Little Friend" is the daughter of a faded genteel family in a small Mississippi town in the 1970s. And even Theo Decker, the narrator of Tartt's new novel, "The Goldfinch," a boy growing up in post-9/11 Manhattan, doesn't quite seem to occupy the same jangly, information-bombarded dimension as the rest of us urbanites.
No doubt the root of all these strangely attractive fictional parentheses is the ur-experience of a young reader enveloped in a beloved book, that hypnotized, even slightly drugged sensation of falling entirely under an author's spell. Tartt is not just accomplished at evoking that experience, she's also a master at recreating it for adult readers. At nearly 800 pages, "The Goldfinch" is a very long novel, but it's impossible to wish it were shorter. There are many nods to "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations" in the story of Theo's coming of age, of the alarming secret he harbors and of the many deceptions practiced on him by the world, but the most Dickensian thing about "The Goldfinch" is the way it gets its hooks in its reader and won't let go.