Recent Reads: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I have mentioned that I am not a lover of literary fiction, so it should come as no surprise that I did not appreciate Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I bought and read it, no doubt enticed–as I am by most literary novels–by the wonderful writing style and the novel’s length. I love the intricacies of plot and characterization that lengthy fiction works promise to deliver. But here–while some who have praised the novel call its extensive narrative passages symbolic echoes–I see only protracted examples of navel gazing, clichés, and mind-numbing repetition.

In 784 pages, The Goldfinch is the story of 13 year old Theo Decker, his formative years to adulthood and his descent into a spiritual morass of loss and drug use as a result of the inciting event: a bomb explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills Theo’s beloved mother, among others. One of few to escape the area of the explosion, Theo takes with him the small 17th century Carel Fabritius masterpiece entitled The Goldfinch. He’s not a thief. He’d been comforting a badly wounded man at the explosion site, and promises to save the painting the old man presses on him before he dies.

We follow Theo for the next 14 years—through his short-lived residence with a school chum and his wealthy, dysfunctional family, to live with his alcohol and drug dependent father in Las Vegas, where Theo meets a Russian teen who becomes his drinking buddy and partner in drug experimentation.

When his father dies, Theo goes back to New York, taking the painting, which he never surrenders to either the authorities or the person the dying man in the museum told him to. But he does take up residence with that man, whose name is Hobie, a furniture restorer and friend of the old man who’d died in the museum blast. Hobie pretty much becomes Theo’s surrogate father. They care for each other deeply, though due to the boy’s secretive nature (about both the painting and his drug use) and Hobie’s naivety and deep interest in his work, a bond of truth–the soul-baring kind offered up in Confession–is never established.

The story is populated by a host of eccentric characters, from Boris, the Russian teen who grows to become an international player who lives by his wits, mostly just under the radar of the international police; to Theo’s dad (and his girlfriend); to Pippa, Theo’s lifelong crush, who’s just as emotionally damaged and drug dependent as he is. There are a myriad other lowlifes, preppy losers, recluses, and con men, and many of them want the painting for their own nefarious reasons.

When I first thought about reviewing The Goldfinch, I doubted myself and my opinion. After all, no Pulitzer Prize winner am I. But I’m not alone. There are some doubtful reviewers out there, easily searchable, including Evgenia Peretz in a July 2014 article in Vanity Fair, where she explores the novel’s reviews as a preamble to her main topic: What makes a work literature and who gets to decide.

Read Ms. Peretz’s article for her thoughtful and sometimes humorous view of the literature scene. I enjoyed it greatly, much more, I’m sorry to say, than The Goldfinch.

One thought on “Recent Reads: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

  1. Complete agreement. Goldfinch started off brilliantly and quickly devolved into a lot of writing. I was entirely bored in the Las Vega section and jaded by the time we see Theo in Amsterdam. Don’t really know what I was supposed to get out of that novel, but it failed to deliver. Lit fic, as defined by the literary gatekeepers, is increasingly a puzzlement. I usually dislike bestsellers — many are banal, tricksy, ill-conceived and unappealing. This one was appetizing, then tasteless and then distasteful. Disappointed.

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