I passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day and was struck with a powerful and initially inexplicable melancholy. I had been affected by the experience of reading The Goldfinch, in the opening chapters of which a great tragedy happens there. The book is compelling and moving. Tartt is a master of foreshadowing, letting us know just enough of what is to come that we feel helpless to put down the book. I found myself staying up late for several nights, turning page after page to connect the dots. This book is every bit the equal of The Secret History in this regard. And it exceeds that earlier book in its great emotional depth. The opening section, in New York City, is terribly sad and in the hands of a lesser author this material would be difficult to get past. However, Tartt has signaled us well enough about the future of our protagonist, Theodore Dekker, that we stick with him. And from the second section of the book, while we have no shortage of continuing misery, it is tempered by hope or humor.
This is not to say that the book is necessarily realistic; it is structurally a Bildungsroman, and it constantly evokes earlier books rather than real life. In the opening section, when Theo is still living in New York City, I particularly detected The Catcher in the Rye. When he moves in with the family of a wealthy school friend, his hope of being adopted by them evokes elements of Great Expectations, a book that is recalled again when he returns to them over a decade later to find the matron of the family shut away like Miss Havisham (though for very different reasons). He is taken away to Las Vegas and falls in with a bad crowd, evoking Oliver Twist. As in that book, the reader understands that some of this crowd provide necessary support for the young man. Theo returns to New York and, years later, finds himself exploring dark places with Boris, his criminally inclined Las Vegas friend, following the trail of a missing painting. This reminded me of the best work of Stephen Dobyns. Some parts of the book even recall The Maltese Falcon, though the book treats its namesake artwork as more than merely a MacGuffin. Others will find different precedents, I'm sure. This book is long and rich.
Tartt took over a decade to write The Goldfinch, and polished its language over that time. In Las Vegas, for example, Theo describes his new quarters as "the kind of room where a call girl or stewardess would be murdered on television." Tartt has so much fun with the speaking cadence of drunk Russians (or Ukranians), I have to imagine she spends a fair amount of time with Slavs. Dialect humor is rare nowadays, but here it is done with such love that it's inoffensive and often quite funny.
I've not spent time in the failed housing developments at the extremes of Las Vegas, nor with Ukrainian drug dealers, but Tartt portrays these worlds so vividly I don't doubt her depictions of them at all. The quality of the plotting, the characterizations, and the dialog in this book are consistently excellent. As Stephen King wrote of The Goldfinch in the New York Times Book Review, "You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but . . . they never do."
What's not so perfect? Though Tartt captures the subtleties of several different kinds of relationships between men, much better than I would have thought possible for a female author, the relationships between Theo Dekker and women never quite ring true. One may give the excuse that Theo is so damaged by the loss of his mother that he is never again capable of normal relationships with the opposite sex, but I think this explanation takes one only so far.
The passages in which Theo crams for university entrance exams seem hard to believe and, oddly for a tome like this, rushed.
Finally, and this is not Tartt's fault, I'm sure, the paper in the hardcover edition is too thin. I suspect the publisher winced at receiving an 800 page manuscript and decided to print on thin paper in the hope of creating a less intimidating volume on bookstore shelves. When reading page 403, you have to ignore the backwards shadow of the words on page 404, overleaf.
Tartt tackles broad themes in this book: to what degree can we control our fate? Or does life unspool in response only to forces beyond our control, including randomness? These are common enough topics for novelists, and I found myself dwelling particularly on some of the book's secondary themes, as they are less commonly discussed. Can humans create objects that have souls, and what obligation do we have to our creations, and is there any meaningful way in which artifacts make life worth living? What is the significance of authenticity, and can a copy ever be as significant as the original? Can we be moved sometimes by the absence of something as much as we would have been by its presence? In a profile of Tartt on October 21, the New York Times said that this book raises such questions as "whether it is possible to be good, what part love plays in our behavior and what in life is true and lasting."
It's a wonderful book, worth every penny and every hour needed to read it.