Contemporary American author born in Mississippi in 1963 and educated at Bennington College together with amongst others Brett Easton Ellis. Her debut novel “The secret history” was published in 1992 and became an almost instant bestseller. Described as a murder story in reverse, it was in many ways an original debut that I, contrary to almost universal acclaim, found to be well written but not extremely engaging.
“The little friend” followed in 2002, and despite having its moments felt a bit unfocused. Again dealing with murder going unpunished, its storyline often felt unbelievable and unnecessarily sprawling. Although many years has passed since reading it, I seem to remember having a hard time shaking the feeling that the book had a little too much of teenage crime mystery in it for its own good.
If you´re interested in the development of her particular style and themes, this wonderful article from Harper´s Magazine might be a good place to start.
After yet a decade of silence, “The Goldfinch” turned up in 2013, and despite Pulitzer Prize and all went largely unnoticed by me until I accidentally happened to see it at the book store at Stockholm Central Station, in search of entertainment for a boring train journey. Quite a hefty tome, with its 700+ pages, it´s Donna Tartt´s most voluminous work so far. The opening pages with the protagonist Theo Decker holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, anxiously scanning Dutch newspapers for mention of some for us yet unknown events involving bloody murder, sets the tone. A beginning not that unfamiliar to her two previous novels, managing to grab your attention and pique your curiosity of whatever could have led up to this.
The book rapidly leaps back in time to a 13 year old Theo living in New York with his mother, abandoned by the unreliable alcoholic father/husband. A series of coincidences leads them into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb attack kills Theo´s mother along with several other people. Theo survives and experiences some life-changing moments when he before the explosion sees the girl Pippa, and after the blast shares the dying moments of her caretaker Welty, who gives him a ring and an address to a New York antique shop and asks him to take one of the museum paintings with him, which he does. This is the titular “The Goldfinch”, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, and the fact that Fabritius himself died in an explosion of a gunpowder magazine in his hometown of Delft the same year sort of ties it to the events of the novel.
Grief-stricken and alone in the world Theo ends up at the home of the Barbours, the socialite family of school friend Andy, in what seems to be a temporary arrangement. Following the dying words of Welty in the museum, Theo goes to the antique shop and presents the ring given to him to the proprietor – a furniture restoration expert called Hobie. The two become friends and Theo gets to meet the girl Pippa again, who apart from recovering from serious injuries from the blast also like Theo suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This meeting sets off a life-long romantic obsession on Theo´s part, which infuses the story throughout its course.
The stay at the Barbours is swiftly brought to an end when Theo´s father comes along, sweeping the boy with him to his dreary Las Vegas home where his alcoholism has been traded for compulsive gambling and pills. Theo is more or less in limbo, with the painting as his only comfort, until he meets the energetic Boris, neglected son of a Russian mining engineer living a nomadic life with brief stops in remote places all around the globe. Sharing a camaraderie fuelled by vodka, drugs and shoplifting they become inseparable until unforeseen events makes Theo flee back to New York. Appearing at the doorstep of Hobie, Theo is taken under his wing and finds a place taking care of the business part of the antique store. Opiate addiction and ill-advised shady dealings together with a reunion with Boris eventually leads to the trip to Amsterdam, where we found him at the beginning of the novel. Much drama follows, of which I avoiding further spoilers will say nothing.
Let me be clear about this at once, I really like this book. Without a doubt this is Donna Tartt´s most accomplished and mature work. The vivid and exact prose filled with keen observations and careful characterization. The rich storyline with echoes of both “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations”. The individual pacing of the different acts of the novel. The philosophical monologue at the end. The perhaps useless but still engaging and interesting forays into the art of furniture restoration and Dutch 17th century painting. This is great writing.
Two of the book´s difficult parts are handled very well by the author. Firstly portraying the grief and dislocation felt by the orphaned Theo as he shuffles from the indifferent hands of Social Services to the slightly cold welcome of the Barbours, and secondly the adolescent maelstrom shared by Theo and Boris, growing up practically without any adult supervision and only saved by that special type of male closeness that you probably only experience in your teens. Definitely a book you should read and well worth the time spent. Let´s just hope we won´t have to wait another ten years for the next one.