Flying out of the past on broken wings
Fate is not kind to the narrator of Donna Tartt’s vivid, sad and often very funny third novel
Donna Tartt is no Dickens, but she does have a feel for character, manic description and the surging possibilities of narrative, particularly when, as it does here, it moves as fast and as messily as life tends to. Photograph: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times
Theo Decker’s problems are complex and many; fate shows him little mercy, though there are glimpses of happiness as well as the enduring torment of unrequited love.
As a young boy he soon learns first hand the horrors of being caught in the middle of an unhappy marriage. His father, a failed actor and reluctant husband, is a drunk with a bad temper, while Theo’s mother, a pretty girl from Kansas, came to New York and was spotted as a model, but it failed to amount to much. When the boy’s father walks out, mother and son determine to survive. The 13-year-old Theo loves his mother, a dazzling, bird-like creature with a dreamer’s belief in love and art and life.
Many writers could have taken the bare facts of Donna Tartt’s third and finest novel and offered a sugary variation of David Copperfield crossed with Great Expectations. Tartt is no Dickens, but she does have a feel for character, manic description and the surging possibilities of narrative, particularly when, as it does here, it moves as fast and as messily as life tends to.
It all begins with a remarkable opening sequence that finds Theo, the narrator, in a very bad way in an Amsterdam hotel room. It is Christmas and he is alone, cold and drowsy, wearing most of his clothes in bed. He has dreamed about his mother. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.”
Theo’s life with his mother had been both simple and exotic; she gave him the world. Tartt sets the scene and quickly establishes Theo as a clever, observant outsider, an only child who considers his mother his friend. They are very close, yet Theo is already involved in the secret experiment of growing up and is in trouble at school. The day that he and his mother have to attend a meeting about his suspension from class, the rain is so heavy that they take shelter in the Museum of Modern Art. Theo’s mother needs to buy a gift for a colleague. A visiting exhibition of old masters has opened. The show includes The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius. Theo’s mother is thrilled and recalls that it was the first painting she loved, having seen it in a book she used to borrow from the library.