Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Written by Rafe Posey
When a book arrives with a $30 cover price, weighing about as much as a small animal, readers may possibly view it askance and move on to something else. Those readers would be wrong. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s new novel, is enormous and intricate, not to mention expensive. It requires a commitment to wade through such a densely textured novel, and readers newly learning of Ms. Tartt may not understand that the commitment tends to be worth it. Her debut novel, The Secret History, appeared in 1992 and won her the hearts (and attention spans) of the masses. Her second, The Little Friend, came a decade later. Devoted readers have waited since then for another of her eccentric, intelligent, deeply literate novels, and this one does not disappoint.
Simply put, The Goldfinch is really, really good, not least because, as it turns out, Ms. Tartt is exceptionally good at bringing to life young men of a particular type as her narrators: Richard Papen in The Secret History, and Theo Decker in The Goldfinch.
Theo and Richard are not that different — they’re both somewhat effete, socially grasping, unparented, out of their depth in every possible way, and inclined to a somewhat shifting morality depending on a) what they want and b) who else wants it. The advantage with Theo is that we spend many more years with him, and so we watch him age from a fairly steady boy into a wonderfully unsteady man as he becomes increasingly unmoored. It helps that Ms. Tartt is better at writing teenage boys than most current American authors. Oddly, she is not nearly as good at writing girls, which is part of why The Little Friend was not great. It’s also one of the weaknesses of both The Secret History and The Goldfinch — there are girls all over the place, but they are not as compelling or deeply drawn as even the minor boys. Even Camilla, who plays Muse to all the boys of The Secret History, doesn’t really come to life until the very end of the book, and Pippa, Theo’s focal point for much of The Goldfinch, is absent and too busy being enigmatic. Older adult women, however, fare much better — Theo’s dead mother is a cipher, but in a good way, and Xandra and Mrs. Barbour, the not-mothers to whom Theo attaches himself, are intriguing and compelling, as well as being among the few really sympathetic characters in the novel.
Meanwhile, The Goldfinch has so much depth, in so many ways, that it is often fruitcake-dense. The details of furniture and wardrobe, of restoration (in literal and figurative senses), of landscape, are intricate and deftly drawn. Several reviewers have called the book “Dicksensian,” which explains both what I loved about it and what I did not. On the one hand, the details are spectacular, and the narrative makes sense. It would have been brilliant as a serial. On the other, there are way too many people in the novel, and often too much reliance on coincidence, and sometimes it gets a little choked as a result. Stephen King, in his terrific NYT review of The Goldfinch, compares it to Oliver Twist. Having read his review, I now want to look at Oliver Twist again; making the comparison backwards might help me like Dickens. While I agree with King’s link of Boris to the Artful Dodger (more on Boris in a minute) and Theo’s terrible dad to Fagin, I think comparing Theo to Oliver is less clear — Oliver is naive and fairly boring, with none of the layers that make Theo so difficult and interesting. He is much more Pip or David Copperfield than he is Oliver.
Speaking of Boris, I have mixed feelings about him. He reminds me both of the expatriated quasi-Russian not-Soviet boys I used to teach in Queens and of Alex Perchov, the narrator of Everything is Illuminated. Boris is fraught in some of the same ways, but, like Alex, sometimes his weird (and often wonderful) accent and character take up too much space. The role that Boris plays in the huge narrative arc of The Goldfinch, and in the story of the painting from which the novel takes its name, is huge, and not entirely successful.
Also, normally I don’t mind prologues, but I felt that this one lent nothing to the story, and I wish that Ms. Tartt had begun at the beginning, with Theo and his mother. As for the end… There are moments of glorious light that come through it, but it presents a thoughtfulness (and a self-awareness) to Theo that I didn’t feel like I had ever seen before in the novel, and that I am still not sure I believed. Did the ending make my chest hurt? Yes, although not as much as I thought it would.
What really got me was the relationship between Theo and James Hobart, or Hobie, the furniture restoration master who befriends and mentors him. I don’t want to write much about Hobie, because he made me so sad, but I think he is the first Donna Tartt character I’ve ever wanted to know in real life. Also, I have rarely encountered a novel that handled grief as well as this one does; whatever else Theo is doing, he is also trying to understand the loss of his mother and how he can go forward after her sudden, awful death (this is not a spoiler, as Theo tells us she is dead almost immediately). The way that Ms. Tartt handles Theo’s sorrow is extraordinary — even when Theo gets a bit maudlin, the novel never does, and both his heartbreak and the misery of how his life has to change are gorgeously done. Likewise, the care that Ms. Tartt has taken to make the painting itself (a real painting, presented here with a wholly alternate life story) a character in the book is astonishing. Even when the other details of this read have faded, the little golden bird and its chain are going to stick in my mind for a very, very long time.
Overall, I loved this book, and I look forward to reading it again. Donna Tartt is perhaps better than she’s ever been. While The Goldfinch certainly has flaws and some moments where the prose gets ahead of itself, those problems are wildly overshadowed by the book’s strengths.
Info: Little, Brown and Company, 784 pages, $30.00 hardcover, October 2013