It’s daunting to attempt to do justice to Donna Tartt’s 784 page novel The Goldfinch in a mere thousand or so words. Last night I was part of a large audience who saw her in conversation with Kirsty Wark at St James’s, Piccadilly. If the weight of expectation surrounding the release of what is only her third novel in twenty-one years is huge, Donna Tartt bears it lightly: witty, charming and utterly belying her reputation as a recluse, like many a great writer she is remarkably unpretentious and down-to-earth.
The success and rapturous critical reception of her 1992 debut The Secret History were not replicated to the same degree by The Little Friend in 2002 (I loved them both), so her fans were understandably keen to see what the last eleven years would bring forth. The Goldfinch may itself only cover a period of fourteen years but the over-used term ‘sweeping’ is nonetheless justified in terms of setting, plot and above all, moral questions.
The first person narrator is Theo Decker, whose life is shattered at the age of thirteen when his mother is killed in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In one of many pivotal examples of happenstance, Theo finds himself in the company of a dying stranger, an old man who asks him to remove The Goldfinch, a small-scale 1654 masterpiece by Rembrandt pupil Carel Fabritius, from the gallery. He also entrusts Theo with a ring and instructions which will lead him to an antiques workshop in Greenwich Village, Hobart and Blackwell. This proves a sanctuary, both materially and in the benevolent form of Hobie – owner James Hobart – who will assume many roles in Theo’s life. Theo’s unthinking misappropriation of The Goldfinch is more complex: it is a source of the solace and meaning he struggles so hard to find but also of the most corrosive guilt and anxiety.
This is a finely plotted novel in five parts, a total of twelve long chapters sub-divided into numbered scenes. The novel opens, very briefly, in Amsterdam, swiftly reverting to the fictitious but chillingly realistic terrorist attack in New York fourteen years earlier. It subsequently shifts to Las Vegas and with a satisfyingly circularity, back to New York and finally to Amsterdam. Donna Tartt’s prose is, as ever, sublimely elegant and lyrical, particularly in the rendering of location. This is New York, where Theo initially remains in the care of the Barbour family who reside on Park Avenue:
Sometimes, in the evenings, a damp, gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.
And this is Vegas, the place to which he is reluctantly relocated by the father who had previously deserted him and his mother:
I only went out after the sun started going down. The twilights out there were florid and melodramatic, great sweeps of orange and crimson and Lawrence-in-the-desert vermilion, then night dropping dark and hard like a slammed door.
A combination of the vividly recognisable settings and the engaging characterisation of Theo as an adolescent give the first two-thirds of the novel a rare quality. It is an achievement to make a protagonist raw and believable enough to inhabit both the reader’s head and heart when they are otherwise occupied.
It was fascinating to hear that the Las Vegas section only came about as a result of a trip Donna Tartt took against her will. There is a different tone to the writing here which underlines the contrast with New York (where it always seems to be raining) – this has a lot to do with the introduction of Boris, another motherless boy, of Polish-Ukrainian origin, and to put it mildly, a bad influence. But he is a friend to Theo, whose grief and loneliness are almost unbearably palpable, and the dynamics between them are reliably engaging and often very funny, despite Boris’s tedious and curiously inconsistent mangling/mastery of the English language. Theo describes him as:
The only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.
The structure, opening with the narrator at 27, suggests that Theo’s youth is seen in the light of experience but the above is one of relatively few overt references to that fact. I’ve discussed this with readers who felt otherwise, but I didn’t get a strong sense of retrospection and that contributed to the immediacy and poignancy of the narrative. With a novel of this scope and ambition, it’s more likely than usual that responses will vary considerably.
The unmissable influences of Dickens and J K Rowling have been much commented on by others and are deployed to great effect. The treatment of philosophical themes is a major feature of this novel, giving rise to regular expressions of despair:
But though I knew just how lucky I was, still it was impossible to feel happy or even grateful for my good fortune. It was as if I’d suffered a chemical change of the spirit: as if the acid balance of my psyche had shifted and leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair, or reverse, like a frond of living coral hardened to bone.
I must be honest here – the final third of the book lost me. It wasn’t because Theo as an adult was less endearing or that his moral ambiguity was more pronounced, although both are true. It was more that once the scene shifted to Amsterdam, there was a sudden influx of international gangsters (lots of new characters, names and nationalities) and high-octane action which had a jarring and confusing effect. I stopped caring what happened. The endless descriptions of inconsequential things like Christmas decorations became frustrating, and (although actually this goes for the book as a whole) the constant drinking, drug-taking, hangover and cold turkey scenes were tiresomely repetitive.
It was both surprising and somehow not, to hear Donna Tartt say that she wrote the very ending of this novel twenty years ago, around the time The Secret History was released. This is a long philosophising passage of internal monologue which (whilst beautifully written) I felt was overdoing it and showed a lack of trust in the reader’s capacity to have understood Theo, or to have grasped the deeper themes of the novel.
But so what if I didn’t love all of it? The parts I did love moved me beyond measure. Donna Tartt is a writers’ writer and an inspiration. I thought there was something of the writer about Theo:
Often I saw interesting-looking people on the street and thought about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up stories about them on the subway or the crosstown bus.
If you’ve read The Goldfinch or Donna Tartt’s other novels, I’d love to hear your views. WARNING – some of the comments below contain spoilers.
A very big thank you for the many lovely messages I’ve received since last week’s happy news that I’ve signed with agent Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency. Writers’ Workshop have kindly invited me to write a guest post for their house blog which I’ll be doing in the next few days, and next week on the Literary Sofa, I think it’s finally time for the ‘What I Learned from Rewriting my Novel’ post.