It was probably always a messy story, but at some point the focus for Donna Tartt’s third novel shifted dramatically.

As discussed in an interview with Jared Bland at the Appel Salon, the draft Tartt had been writing, which was set in Amsterdam and New York City, collided with a trip to Las Vegas and an art exhibit there.

Goldfinch Donna Tartt

Little, Brown and Company, 2013

The experience got her thinking about the conjunction of art and value, truth and beauty, survival and pricelessness.

And The Goldfinch transformed.

As one of its characters describes:

“It was as if I’d suffered a chemical change of the spirit, as if the acid balance of my psyche had shifted and leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair, or reverse, like a frond of living coral hardened to bone.”

And, yet, with all these big ideas lurking beneath the surface, Donna Tartt’s third novel is quite simply a page-turner: a character-soaked story in which readers can get lost.

In an interview with NPR, “If you have the right characters, the characters will take care of the plot for you. They will bring an energy to the plot.”

(And that explains why, when discussing the book, one urgently seeks to discuss specific character/plot details. Which would, obviously, be spoiler-y and require thousands of words.)

What can be said without spoilers is that there is also a lot going on beneath the surface.

The author hints at this complexity early on, when Theo is at the art gallery with his mother. She is discussing the works of art they are observing, and what she remarks upon is useful not only in terms of the painting but the novel as well.

“The background – a rich chocolate black – had a complicated warmth suggesting crowded storerooms and history, the passage of time.”

What is in the background is perhaps even more interesting than what is on display. (There is an underside to the shine of Las Vegas, as we know from Hollywood if not experience, and behind the beauty of the art world lurk deception and crime.)

The importance of the background is true too of the antique shop in the novel. “‘What the customers see is a stage set – the face that’s displayed to the public – but down here is where the important work happens.'”

It is in this “shop-behind-the-shop”, the “arrière-boutique” as Hobie describes it, that the main character of The Goldfinch, thirteen-year-old Theo, takes refuge when he is struggling.

In this case, the place possesses the kind of “complicated warmth” that Theo observed in the painting with his mother.

He finds great comfort behind the shop, where “the workshop was so rich and magical, a treasure cave, bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside, with the light filtering down from the high windows, fretwork and filigree, mysterious tools I didn’t know the name of, and the sharp, intriguing smells of varnish and beeswax”.

But there are other places beneath (often above-ground and on upper floors, ironically) which nag, haunt and even threaten.

The reader moves through and inhabits these with the characters too. It is not always a comfortable journey. Take this segment, for example (it is long, but demonstrates several of the novel’s remarkable qualities):

Carel Fabritius Goldfinch

Click through to the Frick Collection for a short audio file about the painting

“At some point, I slept, then woke and read some more. At two a.m., just as St. Exupery was telling the story of his plane crash in the desert we came into Salina, Kansas (‘Crossroads of America’) – twenty minute rest stop, under a moth-beaten sodium lap, where Popper and I ran around a deserted gas station parking lot in the dark, my head still full of the book while also exulting in the strangeness of being in my mother’s state for the first time in my life – had she, on her rounds with her father, ever driven through this town, cards rushing past on the Ninth Street Interstate Exit, lighted grain silos like starships looming in the emptiness for miles away? Back on the bus – sleepy, dirty, tired-out, cold – Popchik and I slept from Salina to Topeka, and from Topeka to Kansas City, Missouri, where we pulled in just at sunrise.”

Donna Tartt can write succinctly. Check out that first sentence: she can do it. But many times, she chooses not to. (This will not be to every reader’s taste.)

In this passage, the reader is pulled into the wee hours of the morning, informed that the character observed has been reading the words of a man who has disappeared (who wrote a story about a boy who loved a rose, which is not all that far removed from the story of a boy who loved a bird in a painting), and invited into the wander-y meander-y memory-thoughts and feelings that refused to be confined by commas and full stops. (Not every reader will want to feel that.)

And, in The Goldfinch, she is inhabiting Theo Decker, who can barely tolerate the world around him:

“And that’s why I’ve chosen to write these pages as I’ve written them. For only by stepping into the middle zone, the polychrome edge between truth and untruth, is it tolerable to be here and writing this at all.”

The novel is sprawling and messy, a reflection of the story told on its pages, and some sentences are pointed and others fill entire paragraphs: The Goldfinch is a varied and rich canvas that the reader can hold in hand as easily as a thirteen-year-old boy might make off with a “priceless work of art” like Carel Fabritius’ painting.

Some might call it a masterpiece. Others might sequester it in a darkened back-room. Or maybe it’s in the middle zone, caught between truth and untruth.

(It made my list of favourites for 2013, and it made me cry more than once, twice out of happiness.)