The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
I just finally read The Goldfinch. I’m definitely late to the party on this one. The book came out in late-2013 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014. Before it won the Pulitzer, it was acclaimed as the “it novel of the year.” Evgenia Peretz, writing for Vanity Fair, wrote “’Have you read The Goldfinch yet?’ Consider it the cocktail-party conversation starter of 2014, the new ‘Are you watching Breaking Bad?’” The Pulitzer judges said the book “stimulates the mind and touches the heart.” Indeed it does both.
But some critics disagreed, and after it won the Prize, some critics wondered why it had won. The New Yorker’s James Wood said “it’s tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature.” Ouch! And worse: The London Sunday Times said that “no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.” This sparked a conversation about what is literature, who gets to decide, and what is the point of fiction anyway. This Vanity Fair article is quite good if you are interested in reading and thinking more deeply about this debate: It’s Tartt–But Is It Art?
For me, it doesn’t really matter what critics say and I intentionally avoid reading literary critiques and even reader reviews of all books I’m going to read because I don’t want to skew my opinion of the book until I’ve finished it and formed my own opinion.
At first, I was obsessed with the book–couldn’t put it down, but toward the end, as the book became darker and more depressing–when Theo couldn’t seem to catch a break–I was ready for it to be over. I still couldn’t put it down. But it started to seem long and like it sometimes got bogged down in the nothingness between significant events that moved the story forward. Then after it was over, I couldn’t get it out of my mind–which, in my opinion, is the mark of a good book. Even though I selected and started a new book (A Gentleman in Moscow), I couldn’t get this book off my mind.
The book’s premise is that a 13-year-old boy (Theo) and his mother are victims of a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The boy lives, his mother doesn’t. In the chaos and confusion immediately following the explosion, the boy grabs the small masterpiece, The Goldfinch, and takes it with him. A lot of bad things happen to the boy after this terrible tragedy, and his life is as messed up as you could imagine someone’s life being after surviving a bombing in which your mother is killed. No spoilers here, so I’ll leave it at that. But, the premise is outstanding and that’s what sucks the reader in right from the beginning. You become invested in the main character and really want the boy to have a great and successful life. And you care about the painting and what happens to it.
I started reading the book just after I visited the Met–I mean the very next day! I had been complaining to my husband while in the museum that the museum is such a maze that I was having a lot of trouble finding the exhibit I wanted to see. (Not the first Met rodeo for either of us, so this was not a new observation.) So, I could totally relate to Theo’s struggle to figure out the maze of exhibit rooms to get out after the blast. I could totally imagine what it would be like to be cut off from all light–no cell phone and no one to call if you had one–in the maze of rooms, each one now looking even more like the last with all the paintings blown off the walls–no benchmarks.
So, that’s how I really got drawn into the story. Great premise. Great choice of painting to hinge the story on. Everything works together to set the stage for Theo’s descent into the darkness of drug and alcohol addiction (I said no spoilers, but … come on … this one is obvious). Where the book lost me … well, it didn’t really ever lose me–I stayed with it to the end and really liked it … but where it got tiresome was somewhere in the middle when we were just drowning in the morass of drugs, alcohol, gambling, and all the bad things that flow therefrom. I even thought to myself, well, she’s using the literary technique of making us really feel the depths of Theo’s depression and addiction by going on and on and on and ….
She frequently described the very same incident/feeling/thought in long, long paragraphs over and over again from slightly different angles/perspectives. It was all good writing, and I see why she didn’t want to cut any of the paragraphs–it would have been like choosing among her children–but, she really needed a good editor with a fully-loaded red pen. It was 760 pages … and should have been 450, maybe 500.
Again, I get that it would have been tough to cut. I didn’t try to edit it as I read it, but I did several times think “ok, this needs to be one page instead of 7″… “we get the picture, he’s high and tripping” … “yes, I get that he has a headache. I get that it’s a bad headache.” Okay–maybe I’m being too critical now, because it really was a fantastic story. So fantastic, in fact, that the book had me from the beginning and I never quit reading–obsessively reading.
I enjoyed the character development, although it seemed like all the women were somewhat one dimensional. The women weren’t the main characters, but there were so many fantastic, wonderful male characters–Theo, Boris, Hobie–while the primary women characters seemed flat, predictable stereotypes–Xandra, Kitsey, Mrs. Barbour, Pippa.
SPOILER ALERT (I know. I know. I promised. But, I can’t help myself): At the end, my lawyer’s mind kept saying: “don’t spend the money! It’s marked! You are going to get caught.” That’s not really a spoiler, but it’s very close to being one, so I’m sorry if that ruined the book for you!
Now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system though, let me say again that I really liked the book. I loved the New Yorkishness (coining that if it hasn’t been coined) that was the basis for the story. I loved that my favorite bookstore, The Strand, made a tiny appearance (okay, was mentioned once).
I loved the fact that art played such a predominate role–not just art, but the love of art–in the book. I liked the message about the lasting impact of art and how memories and feelings can be tied up in the art and how art can have an individual impact. I think this applies to books and music, as well as paintings. I loved that there were antiques in the story.
I loved the characters. I even cared about Boris, despite his being such a clear Artful Dodger who sucks the innocent Oliver into trouble. I’m not the first to compare the book to Dickens; the Oliver Twistiness (another coin? or bad attempt at one!) of the story is apparent. Critics have compared it to Dickens in both positive and negative ways. Also, while the story is nothing like the Harry Potter stories, the basic premise about a boy who survives a very close call with death while his parents do not–the Boy Who Lived–is there. The first chapter is called “The Boy With A Scull” or something like that, and I sensed that she wanted it to be “The Boy Who Lived”–because that’s what he was–but that was taken! Boris called Theo “Potter” throughout, a clear homage to the Harry Potter books and “The Boy Who Lived.” However, there’s no trace of why Boris starts calling Theo “Potter”–or if there is, I missed it. I’m guessing J.K. insisted on having all that removed (see there was an editor–it was J.K. Rowling!) The story is nothing like either Oliver or Potter, though.
Back to what I liked about the book (and you are thinking I could use an editor too!). I liked that the book really made you feel the depths of the dark depression and the fear and uncertainty that Theo felt throughout his life. He was clearly failed by the “system” and abandoned by nearly everyone. Hobie was the savior and yet even he failed to intercede in a way that enabled Theo to overcome his demons.
I liked that things didn’t get tied up into a nice red bow. Life’s problems don’t ever get completely resolved; they just keep us moving forward, and that’s how this book approached the story. I liked that the story took place in Amsterdam, New York, and Las Vegas. These three cities seemed perfect as the backdrop for this particular story.
I liked the writing style (except for the verbosity, as mentioned above–maybe it’s not even “verbosity” so much as “long windedness”). For the most part, the writing was clear and expressive and pleasant to read. You had to pay attention to keep up, but you had to muddle through the long, drunken binges … just like the character did. All that was very good.
I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole of what is literature and what isn’t, or whether fiction–to be meaningful–has to make a deep philosophical point (although I think this book makes several–some overt, some not). I just want to read books that introduce me to characters and ideas that will ignite my imagination and prompt me to think more deeply about something I otherwise might not have. This book achieved that for me.