I am sorry now that I have used so many superlatives in the last few posts of this fiction quest blog as I should have saved many of them for this engaging novel by Donna Tartt. It seems the accolades for this book are universal and a one-word description that echoes through many reviews is that it is of ‘Dickensian’ quality. Indeed at almost 800 pages it is of similar heft as the works of Dickens and I have to agree it is of the same level of excellence. You can open to any page and try and edit out a passage or two but you will find that will not do; every word is needed and every word is perfectly set in its sentence.
The story concerns a thirteen-year-old boy, Theo Decker, living in in a small New York apartment with his mother who is the centre of his world. They have been deserted by their out of work actor father/husband with no financial support and not even a forwarding address. Theo’s mother is trying to keep them afloat financially, paying all the bills including Theo’s tuition at an expensive private school. On the day this story begins Theo is in trouble at school and his mother is obliged to take a day off work for a meeting with his teachers. They leave home planning to eat breakfast along the way but Theo’s mother whose particular passion in life is art history proposes a detour into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a quick look at an exhibition of old Dutch Masters. One of her very favourite paintings is entitled The Goldfinch by the artist Carel Fabricious. This painting was one of his few remaining works as he and his studio were blown to pieces when a gunpowder shop exploded destroying most of the town of Delft where he was living. The Goldfinch depicts a tiny bird sitting on a wooden perch. At first glance the bird seems tense and poised to fly away but with a second view you can see that he is tethered to his perch by a very fine almost invisible metal chain. While they are visiting the museum they separate briefly because Theo’s Mom wants to see the ‘Anatomy Lesson’ by Rembrandt, which is housed in a separate gallery. Theo remains near the Goldfinch because he spotted an attractive girl close to his own age visiting the gallery with an elderly man he guesses to be her grandfather. A few moments later a terrorist bomb explodes somewhere in the museum and as we find out later Theo’s mother is killed. Meanwhile Theo is unconscious for a short time and recovers in the midst of rubble, dust and fallen plaster. From this point onward the novel develops its own engine as the reader lives in Theo’s present. The reader experiences the aftermath of such an explosion… the smell, the dirt the dry plaster filling nostrils and throat; a continuous ringing in the ears. It becomes easy to understand the confusion when Theo approaches the elderly gentleman who was accompanying the girl he admired and with his dying words gives Theo a ring requesting he deliver it to the shop of Hobart and Blackwell in Greenwich Village. In a disoriented moment Theo, just a boy, witnesses life desert this old man and then he grabs the masterpiece, The Goldfinch, and scrambles through the rubble trying to find a way out of the building. Eventually he comes to the office area and escapes through a fire exit with the painting in a shopping bag. Once outside he cannot get back in to look for his mother. Everything has been cordoned off because another bomb has been discovered and so Theo walks home though the cold and indifferent streets of New York hoping his mother will be there waiting for him. It is futile, and a day later Theo is visited by social service workers and barely avoids going into foster care by mentioning the mother of a wealthy school friend who agrees to take him into her home until his father can be located. Thus begins this story that will captivate you. I am a slow reader but I read this book over three days. I took it everywhere I went.
Part of this novel’s intensity is that there is a balance of living in the moment and yet seeing the characters develop over time. Before the school term expires Theo’s errant father and his quirky new girl friend take Theo away from New York to a wasteland of suburban Las Vegas where most of the houses are abandoned because of the slump in the real estate market. His father is more interested in claiming his ex wife’s life insurance policy than providing Theo with a home. Settled in Las Vegas Theo is neglected and subsists on a diet of hors d’oeurves the girlfriend, Xandra brings back from the restaurant where she works and whatever else he can scavenge. His saviour is a displaced Russian schoolmate named Boris who is equally neglected by his single parent home and together they form a friendship that saves them both. Some years later Theo returns to New York and after completing his education discovers that his greatest talent is that of con artist. He develops an interest in the antique business that is a perfect vehicle for preying upon the character faults of his clientele. It becomes very easy for him to convince clients to buy antiques of dubious origin at excessively inflated prices. This is a special crime because it targets those weakened by pride, ignorance, avarice and greed. Perhaps because he has suffered a broken childhood he has the ability to measure people at their deepest depths where they do not recognise their most flagrant failings. He allows buyers to think they have tricked him into selling something at a reduced price when in fact the opposite is true. Theo, at a very early age exhibits a startlingly bleak opinion of humanity stemming from his post traumatic stress syndrome that remains stubbornly uncured.
Readers should not despair. The novel ends, as it should in a satisfying way. The balance between the here and now and the transitions to the future are seamless because Donna Tartt has an amazing genius for story telling. There is a foray into the world of drug abuse that is both dismaying and telling. I don’t know where this reclusive author did her research but her knowledge of illegal drugs seems entirely believable. I think her being likened to Dickens as an author who navigated both the slums and the salons of 19th century England is justified. In fact it is amusing to recognise some of the little incidents of homage that the author pays to Dickens such as a moment in Amsterdam when Theo awakens to the bells of Christmas morning after having been visited in a drug induced dream by the ghost of his beloved mother. There are hints of the influence of Dostoyevsky as well; especially his novel The Idiot (which I read about twenty five year ago and have on my list of re-reads). The Idiot is the only novel that Theo’s friend Boris has ever read. He wonders if innocence and good intentions can sometimes lead to dreadful outcomes as it did in Dostoyevsky’s novel. Theo loved his mother with all his heart and passionately loved a girl who could not return the same feelings and all this sincerity, goodness and honesty became the source of the self-destructive path he travelled.
I suggest you pass lightly over the profounder issues and the moral dilemmas as they are universal and will all be there tomorrow. Be decadent and embrace this book for the story that is in the same league as the works of Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Wilkie Collins, Saul Bellows, Peter Carey, Robertson Davies and just enjoy.