Art Imitates Life. Poorly.

I recently read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, about a boy named Theo who survives a terrorist attack on a New York museum and walks out with a priceless masterpiece, which becomes the central focus of his life as he grows up and gets him into some seriously hot water later on. I thought it strained credulity in a few places and I was a little disappointed with the ending, but it was well-written and a good read overall. I also read this article about the book (no spoilers), in which the author details the uncanny similarities between the adult Theo’s life and his own, and marvels at how perfectly Tartt captured the details of his particular line of work: dealing antique furniture. Quite to my surprise, towards the end of the book I also found my own very specialized trade in print. However, I was less than thrilled with Tartt’s rendering of American Citizen Services.

Stranded in Amsterdam under unsavory circumstances, Theo calls the U.S. consulate and has a four-page conversation with a staff member, presumably a consular officer, about getting a replacement for a lost passport. It starts about halfway down page 711 if you have the book, or if you want to read this section in Amazon’s Search Inside feature. Go ahead, I’ll wait. (If you stick to pages 711-714, there are no significant plot spoilers.)

Where to begin? No, an adult does not need to present their birth certificate to renew a passport, or a driver’s license or a Social Security card, though it’s certainly helpful if they have them. In some cases we can process an emergency passport without any ID at all, if you had everything stolen but the clothes on your back. There’s no such thing as a “passport waiver” in the sense she seems to be using. There’s no chip missing from a temporary passport that would keep you from using it to travel to the United States. THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE FOR. And it absolutely does not take ten working days to process an emergency passport. We can crank one of those babies out in as little as half an hour if you have all your forms filled out and bring in everything you need the first time. I’ve had someone come in for a passport at 9:00am and make her 11:00am flight from the airport across town. She was pretty happy about that.

Tartt did get some things right. We will ask for a police report (though it’s not mandatory) and you’ll need to fill out an affidavit telling us what happened to your passport. And except for very rare, extremely serious emergencies, no one’s coming in to the office to make you a passport on Christmas Day. To be fair, it did turn out to be pretty critical to the plot of the novel that Theo NOT be able to get a new passport that day, but I still would have liked to see just a little more accuracy about the process. As great as it is when a novelist gets part of your life right, it can be grating when they get it so wrong.