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.
I love the Goldfinch, very few books have that capacity to give a physical connection, to flip my heart into my stomach, which happened twice when I was reading it. I liked the end section, without spoiling it I think one of the best things about it are the cultural references and the connections she make between characters and films and books. Theo is a brilliant flawed narrator. I’m off to see DT tomorrow night in Edinburgh. Great write up.
And by the way – congratulations on your own book news!
Thanks on both counts, Janette and you are in for a treat tonight in Edinburgh for sure. One thing I am loving about this novel is how differently people respond to it. I enjoyed the literary references but I think many of the others were lost on me, not being a big film buff for example.
Very well done on the signing. And well-deserved! I look forward to seeing it in print. Cx
Thank you, Christina. I appreciate everything you did to help me get the original version written.
[Spoilers ahead! But it’s great to be able to discuss with other readers.]
I really *really* love the ending – it has a cathartic power for me, and maybe it’s my favourite part. It brought together strands of many things that had gone before, and I relished its emotional strength and that quality of directly addressing the reader. I also thought that this was about Theo making sense of matters, speaking things aloud and talking them through – I felt we too needed (or at least I wanted) events to be turned over like that, turned inside-out. I found myself noting how he comes to some sort of Buddhist understanding of events, and of course he’s become a storyteller (artist) himself too.
But I was totally won over by the book early on, and Donna Tartt could have got away with murder as far as my reading experience was concerned. In fact, when the murder was mentioned at the reading last night, I realised I’d forgotten about it! She *had* got away with murder … The earlier bit that really expanded things for me was the shift of location to Las Vegas. She completely nails the New West. It was interesting last night to hear her say that that section was not originally planned – I liked how she described it came to her, almost like a gift.
Also: well done on landing an agent!
Gosh Andrew, you really did love this book! I see what you mean, about the end being the distillation of Theo’s thoughts on his experiences. I may have been influenced by the device we can’t really discuss here, which is not one I like (hope you have some idea what I’m talking about – you alluded to it!) Totally agree re Vegas – the book held something special for me as I know NY and Vegas. Sorry I didn’t see you at St James’s but hope we cross paths sometime soon. Thanks for your good wishes – I am as thrilled as you would imagine to have got myself such a wonderful agent as Diana.
I agree the final third of the book was the weakest …..also Boris was a character that could have done with a lot more editing in my view however this is undoubtedly a masterpiece and the themes of the book have continued to haunt me long after finishing it.
Well done on your book deal too !
Ha! Maybe I am being a linguist nerd, but his speech patterns really grated on me. It would be interesting to have a view from someone who speaks Russian which I don’t, but he alternated between making very basic mistakes and coming up with sophisticated syntax and vocabulary – and in some places he holds forth at GREAT length! But overall I totally agree that this is a remarkable book – I don’t think Donna Tartt could write one that isn’t.
And thank you, it’s not a book deal, but getting an agent makes that a much more realistic possibility for the future!
Well, you certainly made me want to read the Donna Tartt, but I’m actually more excited at the news you’ve got an agent. Congratulations and doesn’t it deserve a blog post to itself?
Anne, thank you. That’s really sweet of you! In actual fact, I just wrote a guest post for Writers’ Workshop which they posted today. Hope you enjoy it (and The Goldfinch).
Insightful review as always, Isabel. Thanks. Another candidate for the top of my TBR pile! I was intrigued that DT wrote the ending twenty years ago. I love that idea! – not least because it shows that writing is never wasted. I like to think of her keeping it in a safe place for all that time (must be more memorable than my safe places!) Enjoyed the snippets from the live reading, too – she sounds a very grounded character. I loved The Secret History, struggled with The Little Friend, but have always admired her ability to resist the pressure to rush into print. Obviously worth waiting for!
Thanks for your comment, Sarah (and sorry for the difficulty posting it). There are many things I admire about Donna Tartt and certainly one of them is her taking however long she needs to write the next book. I’m not sure someone in her position would feel pressured though – I bet her publishers are pretty happy with things as they are!
*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*
Coming to this late as I have FINALLY finished The Goldfinch. If I were to give it a score (which I won’t because that’s too reductive) it would be 5/10, because I equally loved and was infuriated by it.
Things I loved about The Goldfinch:
– Much of the writing is sublime.
– The Barbour family are a wonderful creation, especially brittle Mrs Barbour, coping with the constant threat of chaotic disaster that is life with a manic depressive.
– Unlike some people, I like the Las Vegas section, and the fact that the drink and drugs parts were drawn out seemed right to me – it was a hazy longeur in Theo’s life, and I felt that.
– The sense of place in the whole book – New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam. I could see everything that Theo saw, felt it too.
– The moment when both I and Theo realised that the painting was not and never had been in the lock-up, a very Dostoevsky-esque haunting that turned out to entirely unwarranted, was a real gasp out loud moment.
Things I hated about The Goldfinch
– Much of the writing is also desperately cliched and plodding.
– It is unforgivable to take ten years to write a book and not do simple fact checking when you’re done. Tartt gives indicators that the Amsterdam section is contemporary to now (i.e. somewhere around 2010/11), in which case all the technology mentioned in the early New York scenes is impossible.
– There were too many times when my credulity was stretched to breaking point – I almost threw the book away when no one took Theo to the hospital THE MINUTE they found out he had been in the explosion. There were lots of moments like that.
– Towards the end of the book Theo kills a man. HE KILLS A MAN. For someone like Theo who has been haunted by the consequences for the living of sudden death, he seems to shrug it off quite easily. The suicide attempt in the hotel is only tangently related to it, and once he gets back to New York, it’s like he never thinks of it again. The most egregious fault in the book as far as I am concerned.
-The closing ‘chapter’. Interesting to see some other readers loved it. That is good. I gave up and skimmed. For me it was a deeply dissatisfying way to end a book.
Rachael, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the novel – I found them really interesting and it’s brought more people to the review. We could (should?!) talk about the book for hours, but the point grabbing me most right now is that of taking ten years to release a novel. I think that incurs all sorts of risks.
This sums up a lot of how I felt about it. I enjoyed large sections of the book, including the Vegas section, but the ending was incredulous. It didn’t completely ruin it for me but it did feel as though she’d spent ten years on it and wanted to wrap it up as quickly as possible.
Sounds like all three of us were pretty umimpressed with the ending!
can any 1 tell me the lesson what we learn from this novel ?
I doubt it! It’s a huge novel which deals with a lot of big themes such as mortality and loss. What each person takes from it will be different.