In this stunning novel, Tartt envisions a modern Dickensian cast of characters, substituting London for present day New York. Theo Decker, our century’s orphan, sets forth on a journey led largely on his possession of a priceless painting. Circumstances that lead to his getting this artwork are the basis for the spiraling turn his life takes in the next ten years. His mother is killed in a bomb blast (not a spoiler) at a New York museum, and in that chaos ,Theo meets the dying man, and the painting, that change him forever.
What I found most fascinating about this book is how Tartt shows the life of an American teen left with nothing familiar remaining in his life. Theo’s journey is raw and filled with drugs, thugs and a brief uniting with an extremely unstable father who exits his life yet again. Theo experiences life with the extremely wealthy in New York, to what is effectively urban squatting in a Las Vegas suburb. Through him, we see the dark sides of both lifestyles – a very neat nod to Dickens, it seems. Tartt doesn’t just tip her hat to Dickens though. The great Russian classics come to us through Theo’s friend, and possibly his worst influence, Boris. Love him or hate him – and there is plenty of room for both – Boris is a larger than life character. The modern Artful Dodger, Boris weaves in and out of Theo’s life, from high-school to involvement in the art underworld. And we aren’t without the presence of an old curiosity shop and the proprietor Hobie who is a haven of stability throughout for all.
As a fan of the ‘big saga’ genre, I fell into this story right from the start. There are many complex characters that propel a plot that is familiar at times, and yet can suddenly become wild and fantastical. Tartt can write some of the tightest prose I’ve read and then wax philosophic for pages. She took thirteen years to write this, all the while with a print of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius at her desk, so I can forgive any digressions. The painting gives a hint to the story; the little bird held to its perch by a small chain reminds the reader of whatever it may be in life that holds us forever.
Rating: 5 stars