What do people mean when they call a novel “Dickensian”? A large cast of vividly drawn characters, some of them grotesques with comically descriptive names and odd tics of speech and behavior; a plucky orphan who overcomes a childhood blighted by humiliating poverty or simple lower-class misery; numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots; panoramic shifts of location; a narrative that makes the reader finish each chapter eager to begin the next. But like “Kafkaesque,” “Dickensian” is only a partial description of the writer’s work. Often missing from so-called Dickensian novels are the aspects of Dickens—his originality, his intelligence, his witty and precise descriptions, the depth and breadth of his powers of observation, his cadenced, graceful language—that can temper the urgency of our impulse to keep reading with the desire to read passages aloud, preferably to another person.
More than a few admiring reviews of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch have described it as Dickensian. Certainly the novel features plenty of colorful eccentrics bouncing in and out of a plot that spans decades and moves from Amsterdam to New York to Las Vegas. The suddenness of its young hero’s plunge into homelessness and panic—his mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art—makes the trials of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit seem like gradual, toe-in-the water dips into misfortune. Like Dickens, Tartt employs the sort of foreshadowing that can snag the reader’s attention. (“It was a fantastic night—one of the great nights of my life, actually, despite what happened later.”)
After a brief introductory chapter in which we meet Theo Decker, the twenty-seven-year-old narrator who is too paranoid (or too imperiled) to leave his chilly Amsterdam hotel room, the novel proper begins. Theo recalls how when he was thirteen his volatile alcoholic father had decamped to “start a new life” without bothering to leave a forwarding address. Mother and son have been getting by, dependent on her job at a small advertising agency, “doing our own laundry down in the basement, going to matinees instead of full-price movies, eating day-old baked goods and cheap Chinese carry-out (noodles, egg foo yung),” though thanks to a lucky break more probable in a novel than in Manhattan, they’ve held on to a rent-stabilized apartment in a doorman building on East 57th Street.
It’s not exactly the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, but we understand how bleak Theo’s existence must look in comparison to the lives of his wealthy fellow students at the Upper West Side private school he attends, on scholarship. One of Theo’s classmates has lured him into some bling-ring-style mischief, snooping around empty summer houses in the Hamptons; and Theo and his mother are on their way to find out how much trouble he is in when a sudden rainstorm causes them to take shelter in the museum where the terrorists will soon set off a bomb.