The Short Version: After surviving a terrorist attack at the Met that kills his mother, Theo Decker bounces around several lives and locales, just trying to stay afloat in the world. The only constant is a painting – his mother’s favorite, “The Goldfinch” – that miraculously also survives the attack… and that sends Theo’s life down paths he would never have anticipated.
The Review: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for having ever made allusions to other works’ Dickensian qualities when this – this is the sort of novel people talk about when they talk about Dickensian. Hell, this is the novel Dickens would be writing if he were alive today!
Except. It’s more than that. The novel has all the hallmarks of Dickens – the orphan, the happy-life-ripped-away-by-a-mean-man, the kind-hearted older fellow, the impulsive and dangerously fun friend (who is even, at one point, directly referenced as an “Artful Dodger type”) – but there’s a whole lot of the Brontës here too, not to mention a heaping dose of the Russians and it’s all topped off with a sprinkling of the French Existentialists. Which is to say, the novel is a little more… cruel than Dickens was capable of. Not necessarily to the characters (although, certainly) but rather just about life in general. There is a sense of the Absurd here – the burden of it as well as the beauty.
But let’s not deal with the influences, not yet. Let’s talk about the book itself – all nearly 800 pages of it. For the long novel, my friends, is not dead. No indeed! And while there are plenty of people who gripe about the length of this novel (and of other novels – our attention spans can barely handle a three hour movie anymore, how can we be expected to handle hundreds upon hundreds of pages?!), it bothered me not a whit. Are there moments of diversion and digression here? Many, some of which go on at length. An unforgiving reader might wonder why the Vegas interlude lasts as long as it does – but they’re complaining about the forest by saying there are too many trees. The Vegas interlude lasts as long as it does because so, too, does teenage ridiculousness. So too does the vast desert stretching out around Sin City. If it seems like the “plot” is lost, then you do not understand that the plot is simply this boy’s life. Theo Decker, our poor unfortunate, is growing up – and sometimes that takes forever. Sometimes it’s repetitive. But I found a distinct pleasure in every scene throughout the first… oh, 3/4 of the book. New York with the Barbours, Vegas with his father, back to New York with Hobie (…sorry, I suppose that’s a SPOILER but, if you have even a passing familiarity with this kind of story, I mean, is it?) – these scenes are lush, like the trompe l’oeil painting that gives the book its title and its MacGuffin. They are just words upon a page but they rise up out of the page and enfold you. I can see, vividly, the Barbours apartment in my mind. I can see Hobie’s shop – Hobie’s wonderful shop, straight out of Dickens indeed but settled here in New York! I can see Boris and Theo out in the haunting Vegas suburbs, sand encroaching on the foreclosed homes. What’s more, these things are more than images – they evoke actual sensation. The heat of the sand, the warm age of the shop, the austere welcome of the apartment… it’s all so very distinct. I have an active imagination, yes – but it is wholly a testament to Tartt’s skill with the pen that I can feel these things as though I’d been there.
The characters too, all of them, feel so real – even if they are almost too ridiculous to be real. Boris, for example, is that sort of larger-than-life figure who just… how can this character not pull you out of reality? Except he doesn’t. He is folded into that reality and, like any of the larger-than-life figures in our own daily lives, he exists with a wink. That sense of “boy, isn’t it WILD that I’m real?” – and so when the third or fourth Dickensian coincidence arrives, Boris in tow, we can’t help but laugh at the strange hand of fate (instead of feeling as though our author has taken a narrative cop-out).
In fact, in terms of narrative cop-outs, I almost rather feel as though the final setting – our visit to Amsterdam – is where Tartt pushes things perhaps a bit too hard. Oh, I won’t go into why; I couldn’t bare to spoil the still-wonderful reading experience. (I’ll try to steer clear of most spoilers but anyone wishing to remain completely in the dark should skip to the end…)
Let’s just say that things get far more intense and, well, fictional than they had been previously. The narrative even gets a little disjoint at this point, as though someone said to Tartt, “Listen, you need to cut it out with the daily life stuff and jump forward so some stuff starts happening” – and she does. We go from having lived basically day-to-day with Theo for something like three years… to it being about eight years later, he’s in his mid-20s but also maybe pushing 30 (it’s unclear, time begins to stretch) and we don’t have that vivid sense of daily life anymore. Now, this is also sort of what happens to us as we age, isn’t it? We no longer have that glorious sense of every single day but rather the days begin to glide together a bit as we fall into our routines of work and love and life and all that. But I have to say, I began to drift apart from Theo just a bit. As things ratcheted up a bit (loved the one half of the trouble Theo ended up in but the larger trouble seemed almost… too large), I found myself looking at a remove – I was watching now, instead of living alongside. The novel had transformed from a warm, immersive experience to a warm, static one – a painting you look at in a gallery, albeit one that catches your attention and you end up staring at for an hour. It is no less beautiful for it, but it does not feel quite the same as it did at the start.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. There is a whole lot more I could say about this book – about the philosophy, about the characters, about the relationships, about the settings, about all of it… but why should you read this, with me talking about it, when you could just read the book yourself? There are flaws, there are problems, there are things that people will not like – of course there are. It’s nearly 800 pages long. But it’s 800 pages of beautiful writing, vivid characters, and the story of a life that feels both timeless and immediately understandable. It is a masterpiece, flaws and all. “Just,” as Stephen King said in the Times, “don’t drop it on your foot.”