No, I’m not late to the party; this is a re-read. Frankly, I almost never do this, but I was so underwhelmed by The Goldfinch that I bought a new copy of History — a fancier, literary edition, compared with my falling-apart paperback from 20+ years ago — to bask in what I remembered as her best work.
I did this with some trepidation, obviously. Often we go back to works we though amazing, only to discover our tastes have changed, or that we remembered it better than it actually was, or some combination thereof. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed here, though — frankly, the book is probably better than I remembered it. I’m certainly better educated at 45 than I was at 22, so more of her classical references landed with me the second time around.
This isn’t to say it’s not a LITTLE precious. The book does a sometimes-delicate, sometimes-clumsy dance between being timeless and being rooted quite seriously in its era. Her cadre of isolated classics students dress and act as though they could belong to any decade back to the Jazz age, or even the Victorian era, but for occasional references to cars or planes or politics. Their instructor is similarly unmoored in time, in a way that I think academics might envy.
Tartt’s recurring themes and traits are of course here: envy of easy privilege, wastrel figures with big trust funds and family money, an uneasy orbit of New York and wealth, all seen from an outsider who is from the hinterlands and cursed with an inconvenient poverty. Richard is very, very like The Goldfinch’s Theo in all these ways (and, we wonder, not unlike Tartt herself, who left her native Mississippi to attend Bennington, the school that is the transparent inspiration for History‘s Hampden).
The prose here is a bit overwritten, but not in a clangy way, and we would do well to remember how young Tartt was when she wrote it. It’s not really a problem. And you’re made of wood if her descriptions of ur-collegiate Hampden don’t make you nostalgic for your own college years even if you went somewhere not comprised entirely of northeastern university stereotypes.
The story itself has stood up well. It’s not a whodunnit at all; the murder is front and center from page one. The story is how they GET to the murder itself, and remains solidly captivating the whole time. As with my first run through this book, I read it nearly compulsively and finished it in about two days.
I’m rambling, but the point here is that it’s still a solid book well worth your time. I kind of sorry she didn’t get better notice for this one, because I see it as a superior work to Goldfinch despite the latter’s prizewinning resume.