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, is in trouble at school—for smoking maybe, or some other misdemeanor-—he’ll never know which one exactly. Summoned to the office one rainy day, and, unable to get a cab, Theo and his mother duck into the Met where she shows him a favorite painting, the titular Goldfinch.
Theo distractedly observes another pair of patrons, a red headed girl his own age, and an old man, her grandfather or uncle. Minutes later he and his mother separate: he, surreptitiously in pursuit of the red headed girl, she to take one last look in the gallery. A museum guard runs past. 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: Welty, the old man accompanying the girl. Deaf and disoriented from the blast, 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. Then he dies. Panicked and confused, Theo takes the painting and leaves the premises.
The events of this day color the rest of his life. He becomes permanently entangled with Welty, falling desperately and hopelessly in love with his great niece, Pippa, the red headed girl he first admired; finding a mentor and friend in the dead man’s former business partner, Hobie. Most of all, Theo finds 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 is marooned in a subprime Las Vegas housing development with his father, a professional but evidently unsuccessful gambler, and his girlfriend, a drug dealing waitress. He has just one friend in the deserted subdivision: Boris, the son of a Russian diplomat. 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 up a major portion of the movie (Yes, that’s right. It’s been optioned. By the producers of the Hunger Games.) Los Vegas is this novel’s Lowood School.
That this part of the book is boring is appropriate enough for a bildungsroman. Junior high and high school are boring. But considering that 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.
After the sudden death of his father, Theo decides its time to return to New York. So, with a wad of cash, a pocket full of pills, and a lap dog, all stolen from his father’s girlfriend, and with 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.
Eight years later, the novel is, once again, its unputdownable. We find Theo living and working with Hobie, now a partner in the business, and using it to systematically cheat the nouveau riche into purchasing faked antiques. The painting remains carefully wrapped in those same old pillowcases in a storage unit. The FBI have been searching for it since the attack, and one questionable individual on the outskirts of the New York antiques market seems to know that Theo has it.
Then one night 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, that has 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 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.
This 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. 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 with funny names; there’s gambling and a sick girl (two of Dickens’ favorite things); financial striving and class anxiety are major themes; about 30% of it actually seems to take 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.) 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 profoundly 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.
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 confuses all of us, a confusion further exacerbated by the accolades the work has garnered on one hand, and the extreme criticism it has received on the other hand.