There's a passage early on in The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's massively entertaining, darkly funny new book, that goes a long way toward explaining why its author is finally securing her place alongside the greatest American novelists of the past half-century, including John Updike, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison and that other latter-day Dickensian, John Irving.
"I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats," says the narrator and hero of The Goldfinch, a boy (later a young man) named Theo Decker. "Often I saw interesting-looking people on the street and thought about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up stories about them on the subway or on the crosstown bus."
This avid, even obsessive interest in strangers is among the earliest signs that Theo —whose life is upended when he and his mother are present at a terrorist bombing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which kills his mother and leaves him in possession of the rare Dutch painting that shares the novel's title — will be one of the memorable figures in recent fiction.
Haunted, guilt-ridden and prone to self-endangerment — much of it centered around the painting, to which Theo clings as a symbol of his lost, beloved parent — Theo takes the reader on a fantastic journey. It's full of moral confusion, hairpin plot turns and, best of all, a vivid, rather raucous cast of characters drawn with the fond yet gimlet-eyed insight of Charles Dickens, whose spirit hovers over this book like a guardian angel.
Of course, Theo's description of his habit of imagining the lives of others is also the key to his creator's brilliance. For all her prodigious gift for suspenseful plotting, Tartt, who exploded onto the literary scene with her addictive The Secret History in 1992 and then stumbled slightly a decade later with The Little Friend, develops her characters with the deftness, humor and sympathy of Dickens, her literary hero.
We get to know Theo and his associates — including the Barbours, the wealthy Upper East Side couple who take Theo in after his mother's death; Hobie, the antique restorer in whose shop Theo learns certain dark arts that help hasten his ethical drift; and Boris, the merry, oddly philosophical thug who accompanies Theo to the edges of the international art-theft circuit — through the sort of telling, comprehensive detail that etches them in our minds as indelibly as Mr. Micawber or Uriah Heep from David Copperfield, Magwitch or Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.
Along the way, Tartt manages to deliver wistful, always wise meditations on class divisions, the contradictions of the art world, the power of memory and the randomness of fate, in which life can take all sorts of seemingly disastrous turns and yet, in true Dickensian fashion, turn out all right in the end.
The result is the best book of 2013 so far, and required reading for anyone who loves great literature from this or any other century.