Long but masterful and gripping
This is an intimidating beast of a book – about 800 pages and the winner of a Pulitzer, which screams ‘worthy’ all over it. I feared it would be hard to read, but although the plot moves slowly, the writing flows easily, and I found it utterly engrossing. The premise is a teenage boy who is caught up in an explosion in a New York Art Gallery, and in the midst of the chaos, he steals a painting.
It has the feeling of a Dickens novel – a cross between Oliver Twist and Great Expectations – the protagonist who undergoes tragedy and has to choose whether to follow his bad-influence friends or good protectors. The L.A. section is the hardest to read, and I almost gave up there. There is a writing adage – ‘show, don’t tell’, but part of me wishes she had just told that section in a few judicial chapters – it felt so drawn out and miserable. After that section, it picked up the pace again, and was wonderfully engrossing, but though it was well written, I found myself asking, “it’s good, but is it really Pulitzer-good?” I got the answer in the final sections of the book: there is a cinematic shoot-out scene that is incredible, and the section where he’s in the hotel describes a world of emotions that is psychologically brilliant.
The ending was satisfying, and although it was a little weird when it turned into a more reflective (and absolutely fascinating) meditation on art right at the end, it didn’t jar too much. If you’re only going to read one recent Pulitzer-winner, get All the Light We Cannot See. But this is a very good second-choice, because it describes the inner world of the protagonist with such masterstrokes, and provides a brilliant meditation on the role of art in our lives. Highly recommended.