Donna Tartt's long-awaited new novel, The Goldfinch, is an out-and-out dazzler, a thrilling reminder of how intellectually stimulating first-rate storytelling can be.
Populated by orphans, crooks and fragile beauties, the book is propelled by a narrative verve that compares to Dickens.
The narrator is Theo Decker, whose world is blown apart one rainy morning when he's 13 as he and his mother seek shelter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Theo doesn't want to be there. While they weave through the galleries, he's more captivated by a skinny red-haired girl carrying a flute case and accompanied by an old man.
Moments after the Deckers pause to admire a painting called The Goldfinch — a real-life masterpiece by underappreciated Dutch master Carel Fabritius — a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo is knocked out, and his mother is killed.
By the time Theo comes to, reports of a second device have cleared the building. In the eerie stillness, he comforts a dying old man, who presses a ring into Theo's palm and repeats a downtown address. He also tells Theo to take the Fabritius painting.
The Goldfinch is many books in one. A noirish thriller and an epic love story, a philosophical inquiry into the value of art and a brooding meditation on loss, addiction and the uselessness of being true to one's self when that self turns out to be significantly flawed.
It's also a great New York novel, capturing the city's fickleness and constancy, its moods, people and extremes. At Theo's apartment building, the Spanish-speaking doormen each have their own particular styles — Goldie with his pouchy face and quick feet, buoyant Jose.
What unites them is their unspoken disapproval of Theo's father, an alcoholic failed actor who hasn't been seen in months. Sent to stay with a Waspy school friend, Theo finds himself adrift in utterly glacial Park Avenue splendor.
When he looks up the address that came with the ring, he enters a labyrinthine West Village antiques store. It's there he meets Hobie, a shambling furniture restorer who is one of the novel's most powerfully good figures. He also finds the girl.
As for the painting, though Theo always intends to return it, it's an indelible link to his dead mother.
In Las Vegas, where he eventually goes to live with his shifty father in a house so bleak he leaves the closet door open to lessen the emptiness, he nearly gasps with pleasure when he unpacks the painting: "The atmosphere it breathed was like the light-rinsed airiness of a wall opposite an open window."
The story loiters in Vegas for a good chunk of time, during which Theo falls in with a wild Russian kid and spins downward in a trippy spiral of neglect. Again and again he makes choices he knows are wrong, nurturing a dark, drug-addled nihilism.
Yet for all the distress and squalor of Theo's fate, this is a novel through which guardian angels flit. There's a lingering innocence communicated, for instance, by its vast menagerie of animal metaphors. Hobie alone resembles "a good-natured draft horse" and "an elegant but mistreated polar bear."
It's Hobie who instills in Theo a sense of the "creaturely quality of good furniture," and the material world emerges as one of Tartt's most intriguing and persistent preoccupations.
Far from being ephemeral, objects of beauty tend to endure. The painting of the goldfinch, for instance — which is on temporary display at the Frick Collection in New York — survived a studio fire that claimed Fabritius' life and most of his work.
The rescued painting ultimately offers Theo the chance to save himself, bringing the novel to a transcendent, sublimely satisfying close.
By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown & Co. 771 pages. $30.