Back in August I finished a book. My Amazon history (yes, I know, at some point down the line I’ll find a way to be a better person) tells me I actually bought it the previous November, and I know I started it right away because I was super excited about the whole thing. I loved The Secret History so much I’d buy anything Donna Tartt wrote. Of course, since she writes on average one highly decorated book per decade, so far that’s been real easy.
So why did this book (which I honestly really enjoyed) take me nine months to read and another three to review? Two reasons: primarily, graduate school and a full time job have made me into a vacuous crazy person who only reads historical romances (preferably in a bathtub, with wine) when the day has been too much to ever think about again, and secondly, though I can legitimately claim to have loved this book, I didn’t exactly love the middle 300 or so pages—but more on that later.
The first chapter left me totally amazed, engrossed, enamored. I felt sure sure it must have been excerpted The New Yorker or something and I’d missed it, because that initial chapter could stand alone. I learned later that the extract in fact appeared in the Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker having declared itself too good for this book.
We know from the first line that the narrator’s mother is dead, that she died traumatically. 13-year old Theo, was in trouble at school—for smoking maybe, or some other misdemeanor, he’ll never know which one exactly. He and his mother were summoned to the office one rainy day, and, unable to get a cab, they ducked into the Met where his mother shows him a favorite painting, the titular Goldfinch.
While there, he observes another pair of patrons, a red headed girl his own age, and an old man, grandfather or uncle.
Minutes later Theo and his mother separate: he, secretly, to talk to the red headed girl, she to take one last look in the gallery. Then a museum guard runs past, and a bomb explodes.
Theo awakes in the aftermath of the April 10 terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fictitious but entirely plausible event. In the ruble, he finds one other living person, the old man who had accompanied the girl. Deaf and disoriented from the blast, the two meet, speak briefly; the old man gives Theo his ring and the name of his business, and gestures at a painting on the wall—the same painting his mother had taken him to see—the Goldfinch. The old man dies horrifically and, in panic and confusion, Theo takes the painting and leaves the premises.
The events of this day will color the rest of Theo’s life. He becomes permanently entangled in the life of the old man, Welty, falling desperately and hopelessly in love with his great niece Pippa, the red headed girl he first admired, finding a mentor in the dead man’s former business partner, Hobie, and most of all, finding himself burdened and oppressed by the possession of a priceless work of art, which he can neither safely display, nor sell, nor bear to part with.
In the weeks and months that follow the attack, a grief-stricken, tortured Theo finds a temporary home with the family of a wealthy classmate and friend, Andy Barbour, and begins to pick up the threads of Welty’s life—only to be swept away when his absentee father abruptly swoops down on him and bears him off to Las Vegas.
In the slow, painful period after the death of Theo’s mother, its easy to drift off as a reader; in Las Vegas, its two pages max before sleep takes over. This section is interminable. Theo finds himself marooned in a subprime Las Vegas housing development with his father, a professional but evidently unsuccessful gambler, his girlfriend, a drug dealing waitress, and one friend, Boris, the son of a Russian diplomat who also resides in his deserted subdivision. The boys drink, drug and shoplift endlessly. And, that’s more or less it for a good 150 pages. Any abridger can safely skip these chapters; I’m pretty sure they won’t make a major portion of the movie (Yes, that’s right. It’s been optioned. By the producers of the Hunger Games.) It’s this novel’s Lowood School days.
That this part of the book is boring is maybe not so inappropriate for a bildungsroman–junior high and high school are boring–but considering Tartt will shortly skip over eight years in Theo’s life, I’d argue that we probably didn’t need to stick with him through this bit either.
After the sudden death of his father, Theo decides its time to return to New York. So with a wad of cash and pills and a lap dog, all stolen from his father’s girlfriend, and the Goldfinch, carefully wrapped in pillowcases and tape, he says goodbye to Boris and boards the bus for New York, arriving on Hobie’s doorstep days later.
The story picks up again eight years on. Once again, its unputdownable. We find Theo entangled with the Barbour family, systematically cheating the nouveau riche into purchasing faked antiques, living and working with Hobie, now as a partner in his own right. The painting remains carefully wrapped in those same old pillowcases in a storage unit. Now, the FBI is looking for it, and one questionable individual on the outskirts of the New York antiques market seems to know that Theo has it.
Then one night out in the village Theo stumbles into a bar and unexpectedly encounters his old friend Boris, now a small time criminal whose exact business interests remain unclear. Boris guiltily confesses that he stole the painting back in high school. The thing Theo has so carefully guarded all these years, the thing that has anchored him and inspired so much fear and anxiety, is an old text book. Boris sold the work to some minor Eastern European gangsters but, he promises Theo, he will help to recover it. So begins a harrowing, over-the-top, at times farcical effort to recover the painting, culminating in Yuletide violence in Amsterdam and Theo’s unlikely and rather abrupt extrication from all his difficulties.
In the aftermath, a reunited Hobie and Theo discuss the painting with something approaching frankness, and Theo learns that the day of the bombing, Welty was in the building because of the Goldfinch; that he had come to the museum specially because he wanted Pippa to see it. It was that one masterwork, its eloquence, the passion it engendered in each disparate individual, that drove them all. Tartt concludes her ironic, over-the-top novel, with somewhat unexpectedly earnest reflections on the nature and value of art and beauty and the reality of fate.
I was surprised, when preparing to write this post, to find the novel has been called Dickensian, and by the book review of book reviews no less…then by everybody else. In structure and theme, the similarity is undeniable. In spirit and tone, the work could not be more divided. Yes, The Goldfinch is a long book spanning a long period of time; the plot relies on coincidence almost to the point of magic; its told from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth; there are a lot of non-essential eccentric characters, especially old people; there’s gambling and a sick girl, (Dickens loved both these); financial striving and class anxiety are major themes; and about 30% of it more or less actually takes place inside The Old Curiosity Shop. (Okay, so I’m not a Dickens fan—I side with Henry James (an actual good novelist) on this one.) Even the author herself seems to concur that the work is Dickensian, though maybe not deliberately so.
Theme and structure, though, are only frameworks in this context; vehicles for genre play; a nod and a wink to a convention the author embraces only selectively. The work is modern in its expression of heroism, post-modern in its referential style. It lacks the moral center and dialog of Dickens, and exhibits a different sense of humor. The melodrama is self-conscious rather than earnest. The characters are as far from life as any Dickensian characters ever were, but they are not satiric caricatures as the population of London seems to have been; they are merely deeply flawed, drastically selfish, mostly shallow, and a little strange. (Possibly, that is a reflection of the difference between Dickens’ third person and Tartt’s first.)
Its is a faberge egg of a book: delicate, fantastic, esoteric, entirely artificial, a testament to craftsmanship without being exactly beautiful–but by no means light, and impossible to dismiss. That seems to have confused all of us, a confusion that has been further exacerbated by the accolades the work has garnered on one hand, and the extreme criticism it has received on the other hand.