My cousin wrote me a text during her vacation week asking me to read “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt so we could talk about it. She’s not a writer, she’s a visual artist, so she was drawn to the image of the famous painting on the cover of the book. Or maybe her daughter, an avid reader, recommended it But why was it so long? And why wasn’t she enjoying it? And why did it win The Pulitzer? It was ruining her vacation reading plans. At 775 pages, there wouldn’t be time for anything else. Should she finish it, or put it down? Is it compelling or manipulative?
Then a friend put up a post on FB: I just finished reading “The Goldfinch” and feel like I have to go into rehab.
Is this book a “turkey,” as some reviews have said, or a “masterpiece,” or a “flawed masterpiece?” Or, possibly, all three?
So let’s just say, for starters, that it’s a masterpiece. Surely, the Pulitzer committee can’t be wrong, right? The action sequence of the bomb blast in the museum is incredible—full of harrowing and sensory detail—and such a sequence is very difficult to write. It’s executed with precision in the American realist tradition. What’s more, the sentences are gorgeous, even memorable, as they often are throughout the book:
"I missed my mother. I missed her so much I wanted to die; a hard, physical longing like a craving for air underwater."
"It was a stillness I knew; this was how a house closed in on itself when someone had died."
"Often at night, when I was overwhelmed with the strangeness of where I was, I lulled myself to sleep by thinking of his workshop, rich smells of beeswax and rosewood shavings, and then the narrow stairs up to the parlor, where dusty sunbeams shone on oriental carpets."
"Because, here’s the truth, life is catastrophe."
But are gorgeous sentences enough when those sentences don’t lead us anywhere, or when they take us into detours so dark and cruel and nihilistic—all of life a catastrophe, really?—that it’s an insult to the curious, earnest reader trying to get to the end of the book to find out what happens to this boy? And do we believe his epiphany in the presence of his mother’s ghost? It’s difficult.
Is it a turkey? Yes, often. Like Holden Caulfield, Theo Decker is a very smart boy, but is he a reliable/credible narrator? Not exactly. Theo descends into serious addiction and alcoholism. He’s blotto or hallucinating much of the time and though the descriptions of these states are—again—gorgeous, how are we to believe anything he tells us? We can’t. From time to time Tartt reminds us that Theo is a high functioning addict. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that he’s high functioning, or high functioning enough to tell this story to its sorry, impossible conclusion.
Is the book a flawed—sometimes—masterpiece ? Yes, definitely. It’s a page turner much of the time, but the fault lines in the plot are legion, the characters are well drawn or shallow (Hobie, for example), the descriptions vivid and beautifully written, but they go on and on and on until they become boring, or, dare I say, addictive.
Was the author addicted to her own masterpiece? Could she not put it down or let it go? She has been compared to Dickens and was a devoted reader of Dickens when she was young, but she is nothing like Dickens. He wrote quickly for serial publication—Tartt took a decade to write this book—and he had a social conscience, transforming his traumatic childhood into compassion for his characters and social activism. Sentimental at times, a hypocrite in his personal life, but he never manipulated his readers or left them on a limb wondering if they should jump, or not.
Though I am admiring of Tartt’s skill and perseverance, if I hadn’t promised two people I’d read this book, I might have pulped it. Fortunately, it is only on my Kindle where it will soon be transported into The Cloud.