Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From underbelly to upper classes

Tartt's Dickensian doorstopper gallops through various worlds

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It's been 11 years since Donna Tartt's last novel, The Little Friend, but she clearly hasn't just been sitting back, eating bonbons and reading her good reviews in the interim.

Evidence of that is in the sheer bulk of the Mississippi-born author's third novel, an almost-800-page doorstopper.

But it's not just the book's length that indicates Tartt's work ethic. Like Eleanor Catton's recent Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, The Goldfinch is a vast Dickensian tale. It ranges from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, peopled by Upper East Side swells, antique furniture dealers, degenerate gamblers, art thieves and drug addicts.

It combines Tartt's vivid but literary storytelling abilities -- the pace seems to gallop along even when little is happening -- with a quite dazzlingly detailed exploration of various worlds, both underbelly and upper class.

Theo Decker's life is derailed at age 13 when his mother is killed in an explosion at New York's Metropolitan Museum and he finds himself in possession of a priceless work of art, The Goldfinch of the title -- a real painting, one of the few remaining by 17th-century artist Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt who was, not coincidentally, also killed in an explosion.

Like a classic Dickens protagonist, Theo is essentially orphaned (his father is an alcoholic who deserted the family). He goes to live with the Barbours, the posh parents of a school friend, and in a Dickensian turn of events, finds himself led to Hobart and Blackwell, a shabby, overstuffed antique store run by an old-world, courtly furniture restorer called James Hobart.

(Despite the fact that The Goldfinch is set in the present, it's sometimes surprising when a character pulls out an iPod -- the atmosphere is so Victorian.)

Under Hobie's tutelage, he begins to develop an appreciation and an eye for antiques, to know his Chippendales from his Heppelwhites.

All the while, The Goldfinch sits, its theft undiscovered by authorities, beating like Poe's tell-tale heart. Theo can't figure out how to return it, and really, he doesn't want to, as it's his last connection to his beloved mother.

It goes with him to Las Vegas, when his long-absent father, a leather-skinned cocktail waitress on his arm, unexpectedly swoops in and takes him to live on the outskirts of Sin City.

It's there he meets Boris, a Ukrainian boy who's lived all over the world and who combines a strangely adorable openness with a dangerous propensity for trouble-making. He uses his guileless manner and charm to manipulate those around him; when Theo leaves him behind to return to New York, we can be sure it isn't the last we'll see of him.

Eventually, Theo's felonious instincts lead him to an underworld of art thieves and forgeries, culminating in a thrilling, if somewhat preposterous, caper in Amsterdam.

Tartt's sense of place is unmatched and cinematic; you can see and practically smell the book's locations: dusty, magical Hobart and Blackwell, rich with the odour of varnish and wood shavings from the workshop; the austere elegance of the Barbours' apartment; the air-conditioned emptiness of Nevada.

The strongest section is the one set in Vegas, where Theo and Boris do little but eat junk food, engage in petty thievery and drink.

Tartt captures the odd, powerful connection between these teen boys, doubly adrift because of both who they are -- foreign outcasts -- and where they live -- a sere subdivision ravaged by the housing market bust, with bleached-out backyards and deserted playgrounds, where even the pizza delivery guy won't visit.

Theo's life is, in the main, not a happy one, and it is occasionally wearying to suffer with him through another calamity, another druggy haze, another illness.

But the way Tartt balances a personal story about art, beauty and sorrow with a gripping tale of suspense is so enthralling, it smoothes over any rough patches.

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A1

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