Not that this is a bad novel, far from it. But I wouldn’t put it on the same pedestal as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. What’s the problem? It is far too long. OK, at 771 pages, it is 300 pages shorter than that other Pulitzer prize winner, Gone With The Wind but GWTW has no implausible plot-twists and pages and pages of repetitive alcohol and drug binges.
Where was the editor? AWOL with Theo’s passport, I suspect. A missed opportunity. A good novel could have been turned into a great one with a bit more control and a lot less verbiage.
Now that that’s off my chest, let’s focus on the good points.
The first section which sets up the novel is superb. Thereafter, there’s a gradual downhill gradient with distinct plateaux along the way, which give the feeling of reading for ages and never getting anywhere plot-wise. That said I read the whole in just over a week, which means it’s very readable. Nor am I’m employing that word as an insult.
The character portrait of motherless Theo, suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress syndrome, getting into the wrong company and doing his best to squander the opportunities that are handed him, makes me both anxious and furious. Because for every louse in his life (his father, Boris), there is a benefactor (Mrs Barbour, Hobie). Unfortunately those mind-altering substances won’t loosen their grip and Theo’s mind is incapable of accepting the good things when they come his way.
His character had been indelibly marked by the tragedy of his mother’s death and Fabritius’s painting of The Goldfinch which came into his hands at the same time. Indeed his very identity is bound up with that painting, which, because he effectively stole it from a bombed-out museum, he must keep hidden.
How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had. The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. it was support and vindication, it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that held the whole cathedral up.
Suffice to say, when he discovers its loss, he loses the plot and thus begins a downward spiral an adventure that descends into the preposterous. Tartt has to commit murder to get him out of the fix he lands himself in – in more ways than one.
The point is that Theo believes he is pursued by bad luck and, like the Goldfinch chained to its perch, he cannot fly unfettered. Ironically it’s not until he resolves the conundrum of returning the painting that his luck changes – massively. fortuitously and far too conveniently for me …
… yet it is hard to see how Theo can reach the point of redemption without that startling denouement. It’s Dickensian, that’s what. As indeed are the echoes of Great Expectations and the characters, the good, the bad and the ugly. Not that they are grotesques (well, perhaps Lucius Reeve and Boris). The main characters are finely drawn and nuanced. Indeed this and the strong evocation of place (New York, The Nevada Desert, Amsterdam) are the novel’s stronger points.
And Theo’s not all bad. He has a generous heart – perhaps he deserves a shot at redemption after all?