I requested this book from our library in February, the month I was laid up with a broken ankle, on the advice of my youngest brother, who is a wonderful writer himself. But, of course, it didn't arrive until last week, when I was in the midst of finals and the closing projects from the past school year. I was a bit daunted by its size, wondering how I could read a 722-page novel during exam week before my two-week window from the library would expire. And by that time, I had forgotten everything my brother had told me about it.
But as soon as I read the first chapter, I was captivated. The opening pages drew me in so much that I knew, even during exam week, that somehow I would find the time to read this 722 tome, because there was no way I could wait the four or more months for my name to come up on the library reserve list again.
I hadn't realized at the time that the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. But now that I've read it, I can see why. This is an incredible book. It has echoes of historical fiction, most particularly of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, but filtered through an undeniably American post 9/11 sensibility. There is social satire, and elements of a compelling mystery. And there are philosophical ruminations on the nature of God, life, ethics, art, and most particularly, beauty. Yet it doesn't seem like a grab bag of different styles or themes. Tartt weaves all these strands together with some marvelously-drawn characters and a plot that kept twisting and turning and catching me by surprise.
The book begins with the narrator, Theo Decker, in some unexplained but dire circumstances, then flashes back to the moment his live changed when, as an adolescent, he and his mother are caught in a terrorist bombing in a NYC art museum. Theo, miraculously, emerges from the wreckage, taking with him a painting of a goldfinch, a favorite of his mother, at the urging of the elderly man who laid dying beside him.
The next roughly-700 pages tells the story of the following 14 years in Theo's life. Like many a Dickens' protagonist, he is basically alone in the world, and has to find his way through life, helped or hindered by the many diverse people he encounters along the way.
I won't say any more about the plot, which is enthralling enough to keep you engaged through 700+ pages. What I will say, though, is that I love how Tartt captures that experience of life as a series of moments, of passages, of instant decisions that can alter our lives forever. I often share this quote by author Cesare Pavese with my literature students: "We do not remember days, we remember moments." I can't remember when I've read a book by someone who did such a good job of conveying the truth of that statement, particularly in times of both tragedy or crisis, or love and ecstasy.