Donna Tartt's long and compelling novel is a joy to read. While it appears at times to be a Dickensian romp through quirky characters and picaresque events, in the end it is a philosophical morality tale, articulating as well as anything else I've read what life is all about.
The plot has holes. Big one: After opening in the present day, most of the book is a long flashback to more than a decade before, and yet there are cellphones then, too, and texting, which would mean the "present" is in the future, because texting didn't exist 11 or 12 years ago. Small one: Theo despaired when told by the consulate in Amsterdam it would take 10 days to get a replacement passport, whereas these can be had in an afternoon.
In the meantime, though, there are so many delicious scenes of wonderfully observed detail. The writing, even a critical reviewer in the Washington Independent Review of Books conceded, is superb. As I wrote in a blog post in WIRoB: "For me, that superb writing, which seems to offer a surprise on every page, is what makes the book so compelling. There are flaws in the plot, in the characterization, and there is a whole lot of suspension of disbelief called for — it is, in part, a fantasy, really. But for some of us, it is the glittery prose itself that is the reward. Tartt’s ever-so-precise diction recalls Flaubert’s never-ending search for “le mot juste” — just the right word. It is not only because the book is 700+ pages long, but that every page is like a polished diamond of language that you can understand why it took 10 years to write."
I am not as enamored of Boris as some readers. He is the "bad boy" that women in particular seem sympathetic to. Theo's life could have taken a completely different course if he had never met Boris, so in a sense, this is really Boris's story. But in the author's hands, this is Theo's life and it is the life that he draws his very moving conclusions about in the last pages. Life is random, out of our control. It is an illusion that we have choices, beyond what we make of the life fate hands us.
There are other characters, all of them vivid, but none of them achieving the depth of these two. Hobie, Andy, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Theo's father. The two characters who die in the explosion, Theo's mother and Welty, are present long beyond their death.
The metaphor of the painting is effective as a symbol of Theo's life -- both the painting itself, cast among the waves of chance to survive, and the subject of the painting, that poor little chained bird. I personally found Theo, and particularly his drug use, often distasteful, yet he retained my sympathy. His hopeless love for Pippa is so much like Pip's love for Estella, and his great expectations are equally illusory. Perhaps not a masterpiece, but a lovely read and a moving story.