“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

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I’ve finally finished! Although, that being said, I definitely got my money’s worth. Two weeks to finish the one book? It hasn’t taken me that long to finish a book since I made the mistake of trying to read Austen’s Mansfield Park. For the record, don’t do it. Nothing happens until the last four pages, and our “heroine” is in love with her cousin the entire time. The English, as much as I love them, are weird sometimes. Have you read How I Live Now? Awesome British book, but the main character’s love interest is her cousin. Again! Must be some kind of fetish or something. But I’m getting distracted.

The Goldfinch was interesting, to say the least. Basically it’s all about what happens to this thirteen-year-old boy Theodore Decker after his mother dies in a bombing of a New York art gallery. Theo survives the blast (obviously) and is given a famous painting by a dying man and the story just morphs, mutates, and evolves from there.

The whole book has a kind of aimless feel to it. There’s plot and character, and both are pretty well-developed, but what we’re missing is motivation. This is intentional. It’s like we’re witnessing Theo’s life as a bystander. Like we’re just watching from the sidelines. It’s an interesting way of reading, because I did not once feel moved by Theo’s plight. Not once. I empathised, sure, but I never felt too sorry for him. But, I don’t think I was supposed to. I’m pretty sure I was just supposed to accept everything as cold, hard fact and move on. Which is exactly what happened because, as it turns out, the whole book was written as a series of diaries throughout Theo’s life post-bombing.

I’m not a big art person. I can appreciate the beauty in art, and sometimes I can feel the emotion the artist was trying to portray, but meaning is often lost on me. When it comes to art I have a “beauty is only canvas deep” philosophy. My apologies Rembrandt, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh. But seriously, I can’t find the hidden meaning, even while I appreciate the mastery. So it was interesting to read about a character who could see the meaning behind the brushstrokes. It opened my eyes a little, and got me to think. I love my heroes and heroines, but very few of my favourites make me think about my reality. When Theo starts monologuing about “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius (the painting he was given at the gallery), it changes the way I view the image. And the way he talks about furniture and antiques is the way I talk about books and music. I actually came away from this novel with a greater appreciation of art and its mystery. Well done, Donna Tartt.

When you look at this image, what do you see?

Our protagonist, Theo, has the most awesome nickname of any fictional character I have ever read. Hands down. Potterheads rejoice, because it’s finally happened. Theo’s nickname was Potter. Hallelujah. We’re making our mark on other works of fiction now. And it’s not a derogatory name, either. Theo’s crazy friend Boris gives him the nickname for his glasses. See that, guys? We can start giving our characters nicknames like Hermione and Luna, now. It’s finally happened!

What I love most about Tartt’s writing style is that she can make us feel drunk or high or sleep-deprived or in shock just by the way she turns her phrases. Seriously. There’s this part of The Goldfinch where Theo and Boris get their hands on some LSD – acid, you know – and as you read, it’s like the drug has been embedded into the ink and the paper and you’re feeling just as high as the two boys.

The filmic quality had become so stage lit and stark that all semblance of real life had vanished; we’d been neutralised, fictionalised, flattened; my field of vision was bordered by a black rectangle; I could see the subtitles running at the bottom of what [Boris] was saying. Then, at almost exactly the same time, the bottom dropped out of my stomach. Oh, God, I thought, running both hands through my hair and feeling way too overwhelmed to explain what I was feeling.

and my absolute favourite part of these drug-addled pages?

…and at some point, deep in the night, when we were swinging on the jungle gym and showers of sparks were flying out of our mouths, I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and this was the secret of the universe.

Even though you know these boys are doing something so unbelievably bad for them, and illegal of course, you can’t help but feel a little jealous of their freedom. In that moment, they are free. Free from the grittiness of reality. Theo and Boris do a lot of mood-altering things together, but this was the only passage that made me feel happy. The others made me feel sad for them.

Speaking of Boris, his relationship with Theo is weird. It’s indefinable. They’re brothers, friends, caretakers, enemies, and solace. They escape into each other’s company and become inseparable in the space of about a page. There’s a chemistry there that can’t be described. In more ways than one, Boris and Theo remind me of Sherlock and Watson: they’re friends+. They love each other, but there’s nothing really romantic or sexual in it at all. Even this part:

And yet, (this was the murky part, this was what bothered me) there had also been other, way more confusing and fucked-up nights, grappling around half-dressed, weak light sliding in from the bathroom and everything haloed and unstable without my glasses: hands on each other, rough and fast, kicked-over beers foaming on the carpet – fun and not that that big of a deal when it was actually happening, more than worth it for the sharp gasp when my eyes rolled back and I forgot about everything; but when we woke next morning stomach-down and groaning on opposite sides of the bed it receded into an incoherence of backlit flickers, choppy and poorly lit like some kind of experimental film, the unfamiliar twist of Boris’ features fading from memory already and none of it with anymore bearing on our actual lives than a dream.

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That middle section is one sentence, and the entire thing made sense. And the pace was perfect. Kudos, Donna Tartt, kudos.

doesn’t make me feel as though the boys were lovers. They were lonely, lonely boys who were just looking for human contact and companionship. The sex, if that is indeed what happened, was the boys helping each other out. And besides, the boys were so fucked-up so often that I doubt they actually intended for any of it to happen.
Theo and Boris have something unique. So why try and label it?

Now, unfortunately, for the negatives.

I want to talk about Pippa. Because, when we meet her, she’s another victim of the bombing and we see this tender scene where Theo is in her room, holding her hand, listening to her iPod, and he turns and kisses her. There’s nothing quite so sweet as the innocence of thirteen-year-olds (something we won’t even remember in a few years, but that is a whole different issue).
Then Pippa disappears! She’s barely mentioned for a few hundred pages until up she pops and we learn that Theo has been obsessively in love with her since that kiss. Umm, excuse me? Come again? Where was any of this? I mean, I know Theo spent a pretty huge portion of his teenage years under every influence ever created, but wouldn’t Pippa have made an appearance during one of his chemical highs? I feel like she would have.

I mean, once we get inside his head and he buys her that $75 000 necklace (yeah, that happens), we understand. But it’s sprung on us. I don’t like that. Everyone’s experienced that phenomenon where, when you fall for someone you can find an excuse to bring them up in conversation at every turn, right? Why wouldn’t Theo if he were so in love with her? Answer me that.

Then there was the beginning of the story. We meet Theo in Amsterdam in his 20’s. And then, all of a sudden, we’re thrown back to his thirteen-year-old self. That was fine, I accepted that, because I thought that when we caught up with “present day” Theo, the beginning would be explained. But no, that doesn’t happen. Instead, we find Theo about five hundred pages later in a similar scenario to those first few pages, but the connection is never made. You can only guess that when Theo is fevered in Amsterdam after Boris leaves him (again), that it’s the same time period as when the story started. I hate that. The Goldfinch is no easy feat. It is a tough slog, because of the story’s complexities and timeline. Give us something to grasp, Tartt. If you were never going to anchor the beginning to an actual point in the story, then why start the story there? Why not just open with Theo as a thirteen-year-old? You have to give your readers some kind of satisfaction. That “oh!” moment. Otherwise, why would they trust you again? I was so looking forward to reading The Secret History. But now? I don’t think I can trust you enough, Miss Tartt, to give me that reader’s satisfaction.

The absolute worst thing was that this book went on for forty-three pages longer than it needed to. Yes, I counted. After Boris returns, scaring the staff of Theo’s Amsterdam hotel in the process, the rest of the book is summing up. And it’s not even well done! It’s all monologues and info-dumping. And then, the last section, in which we learn about Theo’s diaries, is just Theo summarising his life into a depressing existentialist rant about the meaninglessness and cruelty of life. We wouldn’t have missed anything if Tartt’s editor just cut out those last forty-three pages. What the HELL was Tartt’s editor thinking? I mean, I get that this is an almost 800 page book. But books need to be thoroughly edited, beginning to end. The entire time I was reading that last section, I just wanted to close the book and walk away. I wasn’t learning anything about character or plot, just reading a man’s self-indulgent nonsense. Actually, scratch that. I had the distinct impression that Tartt was putting her own thoughts on the page and trying to pass them off as Theo’s. That’s the author’s job, of course, but Tartt didn’t even try to put some characterisation in there. I was reading her rant about her thoughts on life, not Theo’s. But I had to read right until the end, because I was so close and it had taken me so long.

So, summing up, this book had the potential to be amazing. But it was let down by shoddy editing and an egotistical conclusion. There’s so much more I could say, but I’ve already gone on for long enough.

★★★

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About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
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2 Responses to “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

  1. Chris Reich says:

    You summed it up well. I share your feelings and conclusions. The mystery to me is how that book garnered a Pulitzer.

    • Bec Graham says:

      It won a Pulitzer? Really?! How disappointing. The writing was good until that last chapter where Tartt decided to throw caution to the wind and write a shoddy ending. But this book wasn’t anything out of the ordinary or particularly brilliant.
      Now American Gods, there’s a book that deserves a Pulitzer. But, of course, it won’t because it’s a genre book…

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