Flights of Fancy

Stephen King in The New York Times:

DonnaProspective buyers have every right to ask: “Do I really want to give two weeks of my reading life to this novel? Can it possibly be worth it when there are so many others — most a good deal shorter — clamoring for my attention?” Last, consider the novelist — in this case Donna Tartt, whose first novel, “The Secret History,” published in 1992, was greeted with critical hosannas and excellent sales. Her follow-up, “The Little Friend,” was published 10 years later. This means she labored over “The Goldfinch,” her latest novel, for at least as long. Such a prodigious investment of time and talent indicates an equally prodigious amount of ambition, but surely there must be periods of self-doubt. To write a novel this large and dense is equivalent to sailing from America to Ireland in a rowboat, a job both lonely and exhausting. Especially when there are storms. Suppose, the writer thinks (must think), this is all for nothing? What if I’m failing and don’t know it? What if I make the crossing and am greeted not with cheers but with indifference or even contempt?

It’s my happy duty to tell you that in this case, all doubts and suspicions can be laid aside. “The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. I read it with that mixture of terror and excitement I feel watching a pitcher carry a no-hitter into the late innings. You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but in the case of “The Goldfinch,” they never do. Like the best of Dickens (I will not be the last to make this comparison), the novel turns on mere happenstance — in this case, a heavy rainstorm in New York City. Theo Decker, our adolescent narrator, has been suspended from his school. He and his well-loved mother (“Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light”) set off for a “conference” with school officials but duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get out of the weather. There is a terrorist bombing, and many people are killed. One is a woman with a spray-on tan and a blouse printed with Fabergé eggs: “Her skin had a healthy apricot glow even though the top of her head was missing.” Audrey Decker, Theo’s mother, is another casualty.

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