Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is such a tease, drip feeding us just three novels in 18 years. This slowly, slowly approach wouldn’t be quite so bad if she hadn’t, in 1992, cunningly ensnared the whole planet into an enticing world of murderous students with her debut novel The Secret History.

The world went nuts for The Secret History and to make it even more exciting the woman behind the novel was as mysterious and compelling as the book she penned. She seemed to arrive from no-where to write the novel of the decade and her hair was so great! There were even rumours that this ‘Donna Tartt’ (no-one’s called ‘Donna Tartt’!) was actually the pen-name of her (former boyfriend) Bret Easton Ellis. Lies!

The very real Tartt then made her fans (i.e. the planet) wait 10 years – 10 years! – for her next novel. When it finally arrived The Little Friend was A Little Deflating. But despite its flaws, I rather liked it. I enjoyed the claustrophobic, sticky heat of the Mississippi backdrop and the haunting atmosphere of an unsolved murder as seen through the eyes of a child.

Then Tartt disappeared again to work on her bob third novel, or so we hoped. Eleven years, 11 years! – later she delivered The Goldfinch, a doorstop of a novel that promised a whole new exciting Tartt-world within its Bible-like bearing.

The reviews for The Goldfinch have swung between rapturous and reviled, with some critics declaring it as weightily important as its physical heftiness implies. Others, meanwhile, have dismissed it as a waffling, repetitive, often tedious… oh no, wait that’ll be me.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker who steals the Carel Fabritius painting of the title during an explosion in a New York art gallery that kills his mother. This catastrophe leads him on a road that takes him to New York’s fancy Upper West side, to a half-built Las Vegas suburb, an antique shop in Greenwich Village and a damp December Amsterdam. Along the way he meets – briefly – his alcoholic dad; trouble in the form of Russian Boris; kindness at the connected Barbours’; warmth and a home with Hobie and Pippa. He also discovers prescription drugs, vodka and antique fraud.

Conveniently for Tartt’s narrative, Theo locks up the painting in a storage hold for years where it’s safely out of the way of the police and the plot. The Goldfinch (the painting) seems to be purely symbolic (it’s a small bird chained to a pole, yeah? It’s beautiful and cruel LIKE LIFE PEOPLE) rather than a plot device. It only leaps to the forefront of the novel during the finally jarring chapters where the plot suddenly becomes Pulp Fiction’s European Vacation, the pace revving up along with the body count.

Tartt is a beautiful writer and there are many striking descriptive passages, I particularly loved her vivid sketches of New York that placed you on the garbage-reeking streets of the Meatpacking district in July or in a cosy bar in a Greenwich Village basement in winter. But perhaps her skill at conjuring up a world with her pen so expertly is the problem; no one, least of all her, wants to take a red Bic to her wonderful words and so we get the same thing same three different ways over three different pages. After a while all her lovely words negate their beauty; Donna, love, it’s time to find the delete key.

Theo should have been an interesting character, but he falls rather flat on paper and his voice is monotonous and humourless (granted, as an orphan which PTS he doesn’t have a great deal to giggle about). He’s a law-breaking good guy with a charm that may seduce the other characters but fails to shine from the pages.  And the ending is way too neat, is that really all we get for ploughing through nearly 800 pages? Cheers DT!

I won’t wait with baited breath for the next 12 years (if she follows the pattern she’s set) for Donna Tartt’s next novel otherwise the disappointment may be as crushing as having a bookshelf-worth of The Goldfinch fall on me. But while I wait, I’m off to read Tartt’s idol, Charles Dickens, a man who loved a lengthy descriptive paragraph, but knew – usually – when to stop.

by Suzanne Elliott

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. Couldn’t agree more! This is one where I genuinely can’t understand the praise being heaped on it from some quarters. It might have made a decent short novel (maybe) but it’s just filled to overflowing with word-stuffed emptiness.

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