The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: A Review

I have a good reason for reading mostly short stories, aside from the fact that my leisure time is limited (and I thoroughly enjoy them). It’s also that I have trouble focusing on novels. Few of them keep my attention for long, and I don’t say that to be snotty or judgemental of the writing or story: no, it’s likely the self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder that I’ve acquired over the last couple of years. I struggle daily with this issue; it’s a wonder I get anything done at all.

Goldfinch

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius, 1654

Along comes the hugely intimidating, then, Goldfinch, touted ecstatically by some and emphatically loathed by others. I think that’s a good sign, myself. A book that polarizes opinions so strongly has to be worth checking out—at least, if you like to participate in book chat. And I do have a thing for fat books, mainly the look of them, I admit. As an editor, I also fear them. Will I find that at least 100, 200, pages could have been cut?

But like McCarthy’s The Road, which I avoided for a while because the first paragraph annoyed me (in the end the book made me so enthusiastic for McCarthy that I bought and greatly appreciated much of the rest of his stuff), I finally bought The Goldfinch, hardcover and all, because I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was keeping me up, even not in hand. I barely knew what it was, beyond the tweets I’d seen. I hadn’t read a review (still haven’t). The night I bought it and took it home, I actually felt a huge sense of relief. Some might say there’s a sense of Fate in that—indeed, it’s a major theme in the book.

The next morning, it won the Pulitzer (just like The Road!). Rather than putting me off, as some awards can, the accolade only inflamed my curiosity. Still, I’ve read a grand total of only eight Pulitzer winners, not counting the ones I tried and couldn’t finish. I was yet iffy about the whole thing (What if it’s stuffy? What if it disappoints me? How big is the text? How wide are the margins??).

Christ: this is an awfully long preamble to my “review,” but I tell you all this because getting past one’s often rational fear of big, potentially dense books is the first significant step to allowing oneself to experience something truly good. I opened “Fats” to the first page and began to read, even though I was in the midst of three other, quite good books, though sadly I didn’t miss them when I put them down at night.

The Goldfinch begins with an immediately intelligent, engaging, descriptive first-person voice that at first glance made me apprehensive again (Dickensian narratives, which once enthralled me as a child and teen, can lose me now) but then tricked my wariness into rapt attention by starting near the end of the story (ooh, mystery!!) and then with the questionable line: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” I say questionable because who knows if this would have been true, considering all that follows? And how full is this line of guilt, regret, and loss? Thus begins the beginning, when our narrator, Theodore Decker, is thirteen. We understand he’s telling this story years later, which works well.

The structure of this book, how carefully constructed it is, is one of its best features. Without the plan, we would perhaps not be so intrigued at first bite. Secrets would lose their potency, surprises would unravel before their time. I cringe to be so cliché, but The Goldfinch is beautifully, thoughtfully wrought—like a painting with its layers.

Within minutes of starting, we have a clear sense of Theo’s relationship with his mother, and their social status—just before the museum they are visiting together on a school day (Theo has been expelled) explodes. Bombs: a terrorist attack, they later say. Theo is left crabbing through the debris, disoriented, only to meet a dying elderly man who mysteriously gives him a ring and a destination and entreats him to take with him the titular painting that has fallen off the wall—its own grand character throughout the book right to the last words. This, together with the loss of his mother, ultimately turns our narrator’s life upside down. And this is where the questions of Fate and choice apply.

What follows is an unmoored young man’s anarchic journey into adulthood, fuelled as much by his obsession with The Goldfinch (which he has kept paranoically hidden) as by drugs, alcohol, and his friendship with inimitable Russian street urchin Boris.  Blackouts and casual sex and dodgy art and furniture dealings, and more death…but also passion and love and knowledge and wonderful, wee Popper (Popchik), the dog who doesn’t die, contrary to my fears of what role this dog would play throughout. Themes of guilt, belonging, social status and self-identity, desire and obsession, and honesty are intertwined, but not so heavily that one might get lost or overwhelmed. Most of all, the story explores the human condition through obsession, the quest for identity, and the power of human weakness. We can all relate to some degree.

How could I resist such a compelling narrative related by a young, modern-day storyteller so extraordinary in his classical personality, with his intriguing philosophical angst, and even so typically prone to dizzying self-destruction? How could I roll my eyes at Boris, the bestie who provides the sometimes laugh-out-loud humour with his manner of speech, and, we discover, orchestrates the twists in the novel? And what about Hobie, who, while somewhat stereotypical, warms the cockles with his affable demeanour, elbow patches, cologne of furniture glue and varnish, and dimly-lit hodge-podge of a house full of antiques?  Yes, the names too are slightly stereotypical, but they work because they seal the characters’ personalities appropriately, in the same way a banana peel seals in its fruit.

You can read the synopsis of The Goldfinch here. But even if you’ve read other lip-smacking novels about books or art or antiques or mysterious or nefarious goings on, or musing, philosophical orphans, or all of the above combined (I was reminded of a modern-day David Copperfield sometimes)—even if the story sounds familiar in any way, you won’t feel as though you’ve read The Goldfinch before. The voice and mood are…different.

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt. Img from the BBC You Tube interview

I couldn’t help but be in awe of the writing as well as the story. Tartt struck me as some kind of prodigy. (Granted, I haven’t yet read anything else of hers, but having read the synopsis of The Secret History, and an article on its cult following, I’m getting the gist of where her intelligence and propensities lie and am willing to bet her other books betray such a glut of worldly knowledge as well. I mean, she’s either exceedingly well-versed in literature and art and culture or she’s damn good at faking it—and I very much doubt the latter.)

In fact (I find this out while writing this post), Barry Hannah, a writer-in-res at the University of Mississippi while Tartt attended, accepted her into his graduate short story class while she was only a freshman. “She was deeply literary,” he said. “Just a rare genius, really. A literary star.” She published The Secret History to major critical acclaim in 1992 (it sold out its first print run) when she was twenty-nine.

Watching an interview with Tartt and looking up images of her, I peg her as a compelling, intense woman, deep and thoughtful, seemingly reserved (her clothes and hair, her pose on the back of the book). But at the same time I get the impression that her exterior is housing a bit of a ruffian, perhaps Boris-like even, the country-raised child with sagging socks who maybe smoked behind the shed at nine and always has a swear on her lips that she has to stop herself from letting fly. Tartt says that she wants people to find reading her books fun—and that, I think, along with how she says it, is telling.

As a reflection of Tartt’s knowledge and research, The Goldfinch is also enriching, which for me is partly what makes it so much fun. It truly delivers on that literary promise of taking you out of your bed or armchair and dropping you in various countries and worlds (underworlds too) the likes of which you probably won’t otherwise experience. Amsterdam is as visceral as Vegas and New York. We learn how to restore antique furniture, and the history of, well, a great many things. Foreign languages grace the pages (very few, thankfully), and references to artists and their paintings, especially, can send you Googling (they did me, anyway).

But don’t let me give you the impression is book is work. It’s not, I tell you. Though Theo’s time in Vegas with Boris does run somewhat overlong, there is yet a point to it. Though sometimes you may feel that Tartt might have got somewhat authorially rather than storily (I think I made those two up, but you get the gist) lost in her writing, you come to appreciate it because she’s just so damn good at writing. It’s like, I was thinking, when you’re emailing someone you really enjoy, and thus you take the time to include all the details, all the thoughts. You compose rather than dash off. So in the end, while I did feel there were bits that made me feel I was losing my grip, I appreciated them too because they rounded out things. The reader has a full experience. She took the time to make sure of it.

It’s not often, by the way, that you may feel impatient. Generally, I had to force myself to slow down while I read, and not because I had felt tempted to skip parts, but rather because it was so exciting I wanted to cram it all in at once. I brushed my teeth with it. I read it under streetlights while waiting to pick up my sister from work. I took it out for the five minutes I had a smoke break. This ADD brain of mine was at least temporarily cured, my reading funk ended.

What I’m trying to say is that Tartt’s writing is beautifully crafted. She has an excellent, intuitive sense of which words to use that will properly evoke a sensory reaction. Nothing about this book is unskilled or lazy. It’s masterful, really, both in its scope and craft. It’s kind of like the Bible: you know how people say the Good Book’s got everything? In The Goldfinch, there is mystery, intrigue, humour, love, death, friendship, betrayal, history, and vivid characterization. But it’s all knit together so well it’s not overwhelming. You don’t even notice the page numbers. What you come away with is not a sense of your own triumph (OMG I MADE IT THROUGH!!) but rather a sense of Donna Tartt’s impressive coup. And that you were gone for the duration of this book and now must resituate yourself in the real world. Don’t worry if you feel like Theo emerging from the explosion or his fever-soaked delirium in Amsterdam.

You will be all right.

  1. I was delighted and surprised at how *dark* the book turned out to be. A lot of writers would let Theo learn some nice lessons, have a heart of gold, etc etc. Tartt resists all that, lets him be the sort of brilliant fuck up that lives in the world, except he lives in this strange-to-us world. It’s such a great mix of grit and realism and fantasy, and because of that it keeps you sort tipsy, which I think it was makes it so propulsive when you’re reading.

    Dickens would approve, I think.

  2. You said it *exactly*—in like 7 lines. It took me all day to write that post!!

    Yes, I think Dickens would approve. And the dark is what I like about Tartt, too; she’s got this striking, composed exterior, and inside…inside, stuff is kind of gleefully broiling. Well, that’s not quite it. But she’s just not afraid to go in the heart of the matter, the down and dirty, and stay there.

  3. Great review! You’ve totally captured how I feel about this book…both what is wonderful about it and the few criticisms that seem fair (though I liked the digressions, too!).

    It really does have everything!

    • I’m so glad you liked the review, Saleema! And yes, my criticisms were few, and are personal—others may not at all have had an issue with how long some of the sections went on. The things is, as you say, you liked the digressions, too; that’s kind of the beauty of it. Her writing is so good that even when she digressed, I read it all and didn’t skip!

  4. Fabulous review. You summed up SO munch I thought myself when reading this intimidating tome. What I found for the week or so after I finished reading was that I really missed Theo and Boris. Especially Boris! I loved the friendship that she wrote between those two. When they met up again in New York I almost cried. Really loved this book. I can see how it’s not for everyone, though.

    • Do you know, I didn’t really like Theo, but he’s hard to resist. His voice, his introspection, his seeming honesty (writing the pages he thought no one would ever see)… He hid nothing, neither his shame nor his transgressions. I liked that about him. Boris was quite funny, and I too liked their friendship, very much. But I find what I miss most about the book is the…the feel of it, the atmosphere, the tone, rather than the characters. Though, well, I really adored Hobie.

  5. Like you, I fell into this book when I was having a terrible time concentrating on anything more than a paragraph in length. But, wow. Such an incredible immersive experience. It truly struck that Big-Book-Fear right out of me. And, like Allegra, I really whole-heartedly missed those characters on the other side of reading it. I didn’t even pick up another book for days and days, which is unusual for me, even when focus is a challenge. Love the pics you found; she presents there very differently than she did when she read in Toronto last autumn, but the image is fascinating.

    • Yes! Immersive! I admired that so much, because of how difficult it is to keep my attention. After that I wanted to read more like it, to get lost like that, to have that constant sense of wanting to get back to a book.

      I’m curious: How did she represent in Toronto, then? What I loved about the video and that photo of her reading is how intensely she reads and looks at her own work, as though she’s into someone else’s, almost.

  6. I haven’t yet read Goldfinch, but I am a long-time Tartt fan and have read both her other novels. My 14-year-old son is currently reading (and loving) The Secret History. (He’s fascinated with Tartt and particularly admires her socks!) I intend to reread The Secret History when he’s done with the book to see if it holds up to my memory of it. I can’t imagine it won’t (although that said, I read it 20-odd years ago and my memory isn’t what it used to be!) The Little Friend, her second novel, is a one of those books where nothing really (I’d italicize ‘really’ here if I could) happens and yet the characters and writing are so compelling – you just can’t stop turning those pages. It was a hugely satisfying experience. Based on your review (and others I’ve read) I can’t imagine that The Goldfinch will be anything less than amazing.

    • Let’s just say that The Goldfinch was enjoyable enough and intriguing enough and the writing was good enough to make me run out and buy The Secret History and The Little Friend. :) I hope you enjoy it too! I have yet to start the others, but I look forward to them both.

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