I was 18 when The Secret History swept the world in paperback in 1993. It was a bad age for an encounter with Donna Tartt’s first blockbuster. If I’d been a few years older, I might have thought it a reasonably honourable inhabitant of the borderlands between commercial fiction and writing that’s better than it could get away with being. If I’d been a few years younger, my experience of it might have got mixed up, as evidently happened to lots of people, with the excitements of early adolescence. A friend who read it at 14 got so carried away by its hormonally atmospheric, audience-flattering schtick that she can’t speak about it now, she says, without a shiver of embarrassment. That seems better to me than my own response, which was to feel smug about having perceived that a story about murder via Bacchic frenzy among preppy students in Vermont was somewhat trashy. Who needed this frothy stuff when you could get the lowdown on Apollo and Dionysus from weighty sources like Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae? It was further evidence of my superior sensibility, rather than of any storytelling skills of Tartt’s, that I’d raced through the novel one Saturday without leaving my room.
The Secret History’s basic formula – Flatliners by way of Brideshead, topped off with a sprinkling of Classical Civ – doesn’t seem less or more silly twenty years down the line. But I can’t say the same of Tartt’s performance, a precocious display of a bestselling writer’s knack for projecting deranged involvement in a fantasy while standing far enough outside it to keep a shrewd eye on matters of narrative placement. The fantasy in question is a dream of initiation into the mysteries of college life as conceived by a sheltered but well-read and imaginative teenager: a life in which one’s new best friends all have private incomes and complicated incestuous liaisons and frequently say things like: ‘That’s a lovely hotel, do you know it? No? Dickens used to stay there when he came to America.’ Tartt is careful to give susceptible readers room to luxuriate in the enchanted inner circle’s Hellenistic accomplishments and Montblanc fountain pens. At the same time, she makes sure that the narrator – a wide-eyed young man called Richard Papen out of a nowhere town in California – is able to persuade us that the susceptibility is all his own.
As a character, Richard isn’t wholly convincing. For a straight bloke of 19 or 20 he’s a little too blasé about fending off advances from co-eds, and though Tartt sends him to bed with one of them – a girl he characterises as ‘a good sport’ – to show he’s not uninterested in that sort of thing, his main function as a sexual actor is to moon after Camilla, his clique’s unavailable, ethereal beauty. (It made more sense when Tartt was writing the book to call the most glamorous characters Camilla and Charles.) Though not thick, he’s slow on the uptake whenever the plot requires it, and he slips a bit too easily between the world he’s at home in – a world of basement parties and coke-dealing frat boys – and a more esoteric scene in which he’s admired for his Greek but teased about not having a Hermès tie. Yet these apparent tactical errors come from a sure sense of strategic necessity. Richard’s fastidiousness is important for the novel’s pervasive air of sublimated eroticism, while his dim moments give the reader a warm feeling of being a step ahead. As for his chameleonic abilities, they let Tartt ground her gothic fairy tale in a detailed and lifelike social setting.
The Secret History’s most grown-up attributes – its sense of the wider community, attention to minor figures and thriftiness with shock material – were taken further in the eventual follow-up, The Little Friend (2002). This was a relative flop, thanks partly to its refusal to solve the mystery that serves as its principal hook, but mostly to Tartt’s overenthusiastic adjustment of the story-to-background ratio. Again, a death sets the plot in motion: a prologue details the spooky murder of a nine-year-old boy in a small town in Mississippi. Ten years later, the boy’s younger sister, Harriet, now aged 12, sets out to identify and punish the killer, fixing for underdramatised reasons on the Ratliffs, an unsavoury redneck clan. The Ratliffs, who have nothing to do with the murder, are nonetheless in a paranoid state as a result of the meth they’ve been cooking up and snorting. For good measure, the dominant Ratliff brother is a racist with a history of mental illness; another, an unsuccessful outback preacher, finds himself playing host to a snake-handler and many snakes. Harriet’s essentially childish reality eventually collides with theirs, producing a muffled bang, but not before we’ve been filled in at inordinate length on the heroine’s dreams and reading habits and her extensive family network of shabby-genteel Southern types.
Tartt, who grew up in Mississippi, told an interviewer: ‘Everything went into The Little Friend for a decade. It’s all there.’ She wasn’t joking, and beyond the suffocating level of detail – a typical description of a street includes a list of the trees that aren’t there any more – the disparate ingredients don’t work well together. The Ratliff stuff, which teeters between dark comedy and a more sympathetic depiction of redneck self-contempt, seems to belong in a novel by a figure like Barry Hannah, who briefly taught Tartt at the University of Mississippi, though it’s done without Hannah’s flair for loopy satire. Harriet, on the other hand, is decked out with tropes from children’s literature but also used as a vehicle for ruminations on families and the difficulty of being a bookish girl in the South. With the Ratliffs brought to her attention, the murder plot is pretty much abandoned. And the novel is so committed to a child’s historical perspective that you realise it’s set in the late 1970s only when a kid breaks out some Star Wars figures. Harriet’s family’s shabby treatment of a black maid, which looks as though it’ll be the story’s secret centre, turns out to be little more than a milestone in the heroine’s personal development.
The Goldfinch is even less interested in history and politics, reaching back to the private aesthetic raptures and enthusiastic snobbery that preoccupied the characters in Tartt’s first book. What’s surprising about this is that, in addition to being a consciously neo-Victorian romp, it’s a kind of displaced 9/11 novel: the picaresque story of a boy of goodish family, semi-orphaned by a terrorist attack in New York, struggling to find his rightful place in the world. In keeping with Tartt’s practice of jump-starting a plot by means of an underexplicated death, Theodore Decker, the hero-narrator, shows zero curiosity about the ‘parties that the news was alternately calling “right-wing extremists” or “home-grown terrorists”’ who kill his mother, among many others, by bombing the Metropolitan Museum. He doesn’t do dates either, but the bombing appears to take place in the mid-2000s, after which, for the next 14 years, there’s no sense of a public timeline moving forward at all. Post-9/11 security paranoia is taken as a given and Theo likens a posh bully’s activities to staff behaviour in Abu Ghraib. If there’s a drumbeat of events coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, the world economy, the American political cycle, or popular culture, however, he gets from 13 to 27 without really hearing it.
Like The Secret History, the novel opens with a flash-forward to a climactic moment: Amsterdam, a hotel room, a murder in the background. The story proper begins with the bombing, which Theo and his mother are caught up in while killing an hour on the way to a dressing-down at his private school. As his mother enthuses knowledgeably in front of Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, there’s an audible clanking of plot machinery which will resume whenever the painting is mentioned in the 745 pages to go. Theo catches the eye of a red-haired girl and lingers instead of walking into the blast. Coming round in the rubble, he’s entrusted with an heirloom to deliver by the girl’s mortally injured guardian, then wanders out of the building with The Goldfinch in his backpack too. The clanking recedes as social services find him and place him in the care of the Barbours, a super-grand Park Avenue family whose youngest son knows Theo from school. It strikes up again as he delivers the heirloom to Hobie, a kindly Greenwich Village antiques restorer who’s now looking after the ethereally damaged redhead, Pippa. Before Hobie can take him fully under his wing, though, Theo’s deadbeat father materialises. Theo is whisked to Las Vegas with the painting – clang! – concealed in his bag.
Las Vegas turns out to be a place of less frenetic long-range plotting. Theo’s father, a volatile alcoholic scraping by on charm and a plausible manner, has given up Scotch since walking out on his family and developed a Vicodin habit instead. With a woman called Xandra he rents an impersonal villa in an unfinished development on the edge of the desert. Theo is given a room, enrolled in a grim local high school and left to his own devices. Most of the year that follows is given over to his growing friendship with Boris, the similarly neglected son of the drunken Russian oilman up the road. Among Boris’s ‘Russianite’ characteristics are cynicism, a countervailing soulfulness, loyalty, philosophical melancholy and a habit of drinking vodka for breakfast. Living off shoplifted apples and chocolate, the two of them neglect their studies in favour of drinking, sniffing glue and doing LSD beneath the stars. But their strange idyll can’t last for ever. There are rattlings from the wings concerning the painting and a trust fund that Theo’s father wants to get his hands on. Soon enough another death has the machinery roaring merrily, sending Theo back to New York, where Hobie is waiting to fill the role of substitute father.
After the only major temporal dissolve, we catch up with Theo eight years later. Having had an undistinguished college career, he’s taken over the sales-and-money side of Hobie’s business and made a success of it. But he’s addicted to pharmaceutical opiates, tortured by his feelings for the unavailable Pippa, and now begins to speak of the damage done by his mother’s death in terms he hasn’t used before. (These include a ‘generalised miasma of shame and unworthiness’ and ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder practically to the point of spasticity’.) He’s also sold many fake antiques, which someone is trying to blackmail him about; worse, the blackmailer has figured out that Theo has the missing Fabritius. Tartt adds more: death and madness among the Barbours, Mrs Barbour’s transformation into a Miss Havisham-like recluse, a doomed engagement to her daughter, a coincidental reunion with Boris. And where a three-decker novelist would be looking to wind things down, Tartt winds them up some more. Still to come are a large-scale twist, thefts and counter-thefts, shootings, a suicidal episode and a series of miraculous reversals. In the best tradition of such journeys, there’s a closing peroration in which Theo unpacks the moral of the story.
One of the lessons he says he’s learned along the way – that bad actions can sometimes have good results – sounds more like a storyteller’s post hoc explanation for a usefully wayward character being given a happy ending than anything so solemn as a fully realised theme. It’s a good sign with regard to Tartt’s bestseller-writing mojo-level, and once you’ve learned to ignore the clanking during the preposterously busy set-up, the novel goes down a lot more easily than The Little Friend. True, there’s some overdoing of concrete detail, often signalled by parentheses and the rule of three: ‘festive pastels (mint green, rancho pink, milky desert blue)’, ‘prescription medications (Roitman, Andrea, alprazolam .25 mg)’. And there’s the odd misfiring poeticism (‘Light from the street flew in black bands across the floor’). Yet a lot of the writing is formidably polished, and Tartt’s quality control is endearingly pedantic. There can’t be many narrators in contemporary blockbusting fiction who routinely call muesli ‘healthful’. A threateningly foreshadowed sequence in which Theo is introduced to the delights of furniture restoration – ‘the pore and lustre of different woods … the frothed grain of burled walnut’ etc – isn’t, by Tartt’s standards, very long.
All the same, the book leaves an odd taste. Much of the oddness comes down to the way it handles class, which is by mapping the assumptions of a Victorian novel over an unchanging near-present with no sense of irony about the fit between the two. The characters are ruthlessly graded according to markers of social status, with maximum goodie-points awarded for upper-middle-class good taste on a budget. At the bottom of the heap is Xandra, who wears short skirts and too much lip gloss, has a slag-tag tattoo and ‘teeth that went in’, reads Jackie Collins, watches American Idol and flips out over five dollars’ worth of change. At the other end of the scale, the Barbours are too rich to have a properly connoisseurial attitude to their fine furniture and irreproachable outfits; excessive patricianness also leads to Robert Lowell-style manic episodes and nasty yachting accidents. Third place goes to Boris by virtue of Russian soulfulness. Second goes to Theo’s mother, a scrappy woman from Kansas who funded an advanced degree in art history by working as a fashion model on the side. First place, by a ridiculously long chalk, goes to Hobie, who exists
far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world. Though he enjoyed going out to the movies, there was no television; he read old novels with marbled endpapers; he didn’t own a cellphone; his computer, a prehistoric IBM, was the size of a suitcase and useless. In blameless quiet, he buried himself in his work, steam-bending veneers or hand-threading table legs with a chisel … Occasionally he opened the store by appointment, but – as far as I could tell – this was little more than an excuse to bring out the bottle of sherry and visit with friends.
The rejected son of a miserly businessman who sent him to ‘a third-rate boarding school’ and refused to heat their ‘big house upstate’, the man’s so effortlessly classy he just can’t help himself. When he’s not listening to classical music on WNYC in ‘a rich paisley robe with satin lapels’, or a worn shirt and ‘old corduroys stained with mineral spirit and beeswax’, he’s at the local farmer’s market selecting ingredients for the homely-looking yet delicious meals he likes to throw together. He calls the distance from uptown ‘quite a long hoof home’ and says of a dodgy sofa: ‘It’s no more Sheraton than that shopping bag from Gristede’s over there.’ Reminders that he might have ended up a ‘cop or tough priest’ in Albany only cement his position at the top of the story’s chain of being. To Theo, in Las Vegas, his letters carry ‘a whisper of quiet rooms and money’.
Theo, like Richard in The Secret History, moves easily between the levels of grandeur on offer, and this time round Tartt does a better job of coming up with a voice that modulates smoothly between adult-bashing wit and a deep respect for cultured poshness. His blokiness is more convincing too: it’s so convincing, in fact, that a few teenage fumbles with Boris don’t leave a serious question mark over his sexuality. (I don’t think Tartt means to put the question mark back when, later, she has him contemplate going on honeymoon in ‘Mykonos or Capri’.) But the endless contrivances required to keep the plot’s wobbly juggernaut on the road mean he’s constantly forced to justify out-of-character actions, starting with stealing and keeping the painting, with lines like: ‘I had never quite vocalised this before, to anyone, although it was something I felt very deeply.’ Early on, he’s a believably traumatised teenager, construing all attempts at reassurance as confirmation of his darkest fears. By about five hundred pages in, his grief seems more a pretext for keeping the story running by deferring boring adulthood for as long as possible, or merely something kept back for unwrapping during a festival of closure.
A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, summed up Tartt’s core appeal well when he called The Little Friend ‘a young-adult novel for grown-ups’. Tartt seems not to disagree. ‘There’s something of Peter Pan in every single thing I’ve written,’ she said in a recent interview, and in The Goldfinch she hangs a lamp on the idea by having Boris tease Theo about his resemblance to Harry Potter. As with many of the best children’s or crypto-children’s books, her most memorable passages tend to concern young people solving problems when left alone in the dangerous adult world: Richard’s efforts to survive in an unheated room during a Vermont winter, Theo’s improvised journey from Las Vegas to New York carrying a dog in a canvas bag. These passages are also pure episode, made up to mark time until the next enormous plot-point has to be winched into place. The narratological term for this is ‘retardation’, and at 18 I would have been tempted to use that to go out on a mean one-liner. Instead, I’ll just say that selling children’s books to adults is a bigger business than it was when Tartt was starting out: I’d back her in a race to become the next John Irving but wouldn’t feel so confident if Theo had to square off against the likes of Katniss Everdeen.