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Big novels have been the cornerstone of my reading since discovering those wacky Victorians as a pre-teen. From Dickens to Stevenson to Scott to Verne, then back to Britain to Trollope, the Brontes and Collins. Because of them, The Lord of the Rings held no terrors for me in junior high. Murakami's 1Q84 wasn't too long (I may be one of the few who think this). I can hardly wait to get into Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.

Part of the treasure of big (and smaller) novels are the parts within them that stand on their own. I used to think of them as extended scenes but now call them set pieces -- those parts of a novel that are self-contained and are sometimes showcases in such magazines as The New Yorker the way that short stories are published.
Set pieces add to a full-bodied reading experience, sometimes adding explanations that show rather than tell, that provide an extra layer of revelation about a character or a time and place, or that just fulfill the same glorious reading experience that a perfectly crafted short story can provide.

Murakami, for example, fills his novels with such set pieces. Both Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84 might be viewed as collections of set pieces set together by the author. My memories of Winter's Tale are not of the story itself but of the set pieces -- the early one in Grand Central Station, the winter sledding, the last great exertions of Athansor -- those are the things that I can picture as clearly as if I'd already seen a film of it. (The ads for the upcoming movie look gorgeous but I have no idea how they could successfully film that book.)

The first chapter of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is one such set piece that has stayed with me even as I have had to set the novel aside for other deadline reading.

We already know, because of the prologue, that Theo is soon to lose his mother. In the first chapter, entitled "Boy With a Skull", he recounts the 13-year-old's last morning with his mother and his earlier childhood.

It's been just the two of them for most of his life. Dad wasn't the marrying kind or the family man kind. He's long gone and his impact on Theo's life has been minor, except for what the financial hardships it has created. It also has created the opportunity for Theo and his mother to bond in one of those special child-parent relationships in which the child is treated with loving dignity and the parent takes on a mythical, larger-than-life stature.

Although they are not living extravagant lives, Theo's mother is able to cobble together his tuition so he can remain at the private school he has been attending. He's caught with another boy's cigarettes one day and now has to go to school with his mother to meet the principal. But before they do, they are caught in a rainstorm and take shelter in the glorious Met.

Having spent a few hours in there once, I can see how it would be a magical place for a child, even one whose mother is a member and happens to be one who goes there often. Until there is a bombing and Theo's mother dies.

Before that horrific event, the way Tartt writes about the art and the work put into creating something that requires heart, soul and intelligence is completely engaging. It's a daring move to let the reader know right away that something happens to destroy a young narrator's world. But when the reader can fall completely into the world that Theo and his mother inhabit, Tartt's daring move pays off.

The exhibit that Theo's mother takes him to see again involves Dutch masters; it's saddled with the unwieldy name "Portraiture and Nature Morte: Northern Masterworks of the Golden Age". But exhibit name aside, whether Tartt is writing as Theo or as the former art student mother, she knows what she is talking about and makes it feel like something the reader can see and understand:

The walls glowed with a warm, dull haze of opulence, a generic mellowness of antiquity; but then it all broke apart into clarity and color and pure Northern light, portraits, interiors, still lifes, some tiny, others majestic; ladies with husbands, ladies with lapdogs, lonely beauties in embroidered gowns and splendid, solitary merchants in jewels and furs. Ruined banquet tables littered with peeled apples and walnut shells; draped tapestries and silver; trompe l'oeils with crawling insects and striped flowers. And the deeper we wandered, the stranger and more beautiful the pictures became. Peeled lemons, with the rind slightly hardened at the knife's edge, the greenish shadow of a patch of mold. Light striking the rim of a half-empty wine glass.

"I like this one too," whispered my mother, coming up alongside me at a smallish and particularly haunting still life: a white butterfly against a dark ground, floating over some red fruit. The background -- a rich chocolate black -- had a complicated warmth suggesting crowded storerooms and history, the passage of time.

"They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters -- ripeness sliding into rot. The fruit's perfect but it won't last, it's about to go. ... They want it all as detailed as possible because even the tiniest things mean something. Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life -- a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple -- the painter is giving you a secret message. He's telling you that living things don't last -- it's all temporary. Death in life. That's why they're called natures mortes. Maybe you don't see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer -- there it is."

Now I know what Theo had. It makes the impact of his confusion and horror at the scene of the bombing all the more insightful, especially because his mother is not in his immediate surroundings after the bomb goes off. He is with an elderly man, whose attractive granddaughter he had noticed nearby earlier. In those immediate moments, Theo has to focus on someone else, a stranger, and not himself or even the person he loves most.

It's an impressive way to transition this character from a sheltered only child to being on his own. Theo doesn't have time to think about himself (that comes in the next chapter); he has to perform the basic human kindness of comforting a stranger who is dying. And he does well.

This gives me confidence that however low Theo goes -- and the prologue makes it clear he's going to go very low -- there is more to him than a rudderless young protagonist. He's already got more gravitas than the young hero of Tartt's first novel, the well-loved The Secret History, had for much of that huge novel. While the prologue and the second chapter of The Goldfinch bring that rudderless Richard Papen to mind,

Although I deeply enjoyed the experience of reading The Secret History, it was a book that said goodbye to childhood. Already, The Goldfinch feels like a more mature work and one that is more engaging. I feel confident that because of the set piece in the first chapter, I'm going to enjoy this one very much.

Tartt is like those Dutch masters. She really knows how to work the edge.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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