The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

IMG_20131029_110941The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has been eleven years in the making. And I have no clue how to objectively and coherently review it. There exists so much in these 771 pages. There were things I loved and things I didn’t. What is perfectly clear, however, is how very, very much I enjoyed everything about this book, including its weaknesses.

When Theo Decker is thirteen, a bomb explodes inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC where he and his mother are killing a couple of hours before a parent/teacher conference. Theo’s mom, along with many others, is killed. Theo is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he has a very strange conversation with an older gentleman – clearly dying of his wounds – who gives him a ring, some cryptic information, and convinces Theo to leave the museum with a tiny painting, The Goldfinch. So begins his long, Dickensian journey into adulthood clasped to the stolen piece of art.

What stood out most to me about The Goldfinch was how we all chain ourselves to people, places, objects, the past and how that affects our future. Also, Tartt is writing about art in its many forms. Combining those two themes gets you to the Dickens comparison. So many of The Goldfinch’s characters are a slave to their own artistic endeavors – Hobie and his restoration, Pippa and her music – and arguably, Donna Tartt and her writing. Familiar books such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations were woven throughout The Goldfinch and gave life to each character. It would be ridiculous to think Tartt didn’t do this on purpose and for a very specific reason. I believe it’s her way of showing how she’s chained to past literary giants. Consider this quote:

“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.”

It’s up to us, the readers, to decide whether this particular literary endeavor is bad or good. I’m leaning towards good – very damn good.

Tartt is the master at pacing. This chunky giant flies by faster than you want it to. I physically forced myself to set it aside, hoping to draw out the ending so I could savor her prose and imagery before the next decade of waiting. What always amazes me is how she can take such a seemingly mundane image – like the beginning of a rainstorm – and write it in such a way that surprises me. Instead of looking to the leaking sky, she forces our eyes down to the brown stains dampening the cement sidewalks. That’s an image I love to watch play out on my own front sidewalk during spring rain showers. In this way, her writing feels alive, like it has its very own heartbeat.

It would be remiss of me, however, to pretend The Goldfinch is beyond criticism. Readers who hate Dickens and his long-winded ways will more than likely get bogged down at times. Tartt loves her tangential meanderings. I suppose some readers will also prefer Theo’s childhood to his adulthood (or vice versa). Other heavily cloaked themes running through Tartt’s story are mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, and drug abuse that can make the characters hardly loveable. All of these faults I barely noticed but can see how others would. The only thing that truly irked me was the tendency to do something that bothers me in first person narration – the ‘if I had only known then’ bits. But I forgive her.

RATING: starstarstarstarstar


31 thoughts on “The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. Your comparison of this book to Dickens is so intriguing. I don’t know much about Donna Tartt and her writing, but this review really makes me want to read it very, very much.

  2. I read The Secret History last year and it’s one of my favourite books – I totally agree with what you say about pacing. Tartt’s descriptions are wonderful but I think the best thing about them is how they manage to add so much without ever slowing the story down.

    I’m even more excited about getting hold of The Goldfinch now! 🙂

    • I, too, worried about the length…turns out I shouldn’t have! I am almost finished and have flown through it. I think the setting changes and sheer breadth of things going on keeps things interesting. I commend Tartt for being able to include so many disparate topics/themes (art / art crime, drugs, antiques, gambling, mental illness / trauma, love, friendship, etc), while still having it all feel necessary to the story. In this way, it reminds me a bit of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore.

    • Yay!! I hope you enjoy it, Beth. I always find Tartt’s writing so interesting knowing that she came from the South. So many little things she does feel so much like Southern Literature to me.

  3. Everyone has been talking about this book, super excited about this book and I didn’t know a single thing about it. But your review makes it sound as something I would read!

    • Tartt’s not for everyone, I know that. When I first tried The Secret History (many years ago) I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages. It took a couple of tries before I pushed through and fell in love. But I know plenty of people who hate her, lol.

  4. I plan to read Tartt’s new one in due time. Perhaps in PB in 2014. I’m a fan of Dickens so I think I will like it. It sounds sprawling — so I have to gear up for it but I’m sure it’ll likely grab me

  5. Am I the only literate person in the Western Hemisphere who didn’t like this book? Tartt’s Upper West Side politics are far to obvious. Her disdain for the vast urban sprawl west of NY is palpable. The odd dialogue she gives her characters is baldly unrealistic and off-putting. (I feel she’s trying to channel Dickens and not succeeding.) I felt like I was trapped in a dreary antique shop surrounded by second rate curiosities with no way out for 700+ pages.

    • I don’t necessarily think a person’s politics or disdain for something make a book bad or something a large group of people can like. I think those things just add a certain flavor. The dialogue also didn’t bother me. I’ve said before, though, Donna Tartt isn’t for everyone. She’s sort of particular, and I’m always surprised that so many people enjoy her writing. I’d suggest that you shouldn’t stick around for 700+ pages if you hate them. And I like being in dreary antique shops surrounded by second rate – hell, even cheap as shit – curiosities.

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