Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Review

Theo Decker’s life changes forever after becoming one of the few survivors of a terrorist bombing at an art gallery. Not only does he lose his beloved mother in the attack but he rashly decides to take advantage of the unfolding chaos to steal Dutch impressionist Carel Fabritius’ painting, The Goldfinch, for reasons even he’s not sure about. Will he get away with it? And where does he go from here?

As I knew I would having loved her previous two books, I really enjoyed Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch - but then I wouldn’t have finished an 800+ page book if I hadn’t! And let’s address the length because that’s something everyone mentions about this one. 

The Goldfinch is a project! I think the somewhat excessive length is in large part due to Tartt’s writing style which I found quaintly anachronistic. She has to describe every detail in a scene, leaving nothing up to the reader’s imagination - she insists on making you see what she sees as accurately as possible which I can understand will be off-putting to some readers. Nor is she especially concerned with plot or pacing. Scores of pages can pass by spent entirely in Theo’s head as he goes about his daily life. And, while the loose story revolves around the stolen painting, it’s not as if there’s some wily detective hunting it down, nor is Theo trying to do anything but hold onto it, which he does with relative ease, so there’s nothing in the way of narrative tension or drive. 

Usually that kind of wanky naval-gazing (the technical term for this kind of novel is “Bildungsroman”) doesn’t sit well with me but Tartt is such a gifted writer that she’s able to hypnotise the reader into not caring about the trappings of modern fiction. This is largely due to her remarkable ability to craft unique and memorable characters who effortlessly capture and hold the attention so that it doesn’t matter that they’re not doing much but talk to each other. 

My favourite character by far was Boris, Theo’s childhood friend, a charming Russian kid who bonds with him over their shared familial situations: both have dead mothers and abusive fathers. Their adventures in Las Vegas were compelling and Tartt gives Boris a very personable and real voice. He’s a lot of fun to read about and he steals every scene he’s in - it’s easy to see why Theo likes him so much. 

But really all of her characters are skilfully brought to life, from the Jewish gangster Mr Silver to his mother’s lawyer friend Mr Bracegirdle, his endearingly gentle guardian Hobie, his father’s flaky girlfriend Xandra, and his tragic mother surrogate Mrs Barbour. Rarely do I read books with characters this richly realised. 

That style is what makes her writing seem anachronistic - specifically Dickensian. Which is appropriate, not just because Dickens wrote similarly dense and slow-moving books so acutely focused on character uber alles, but because The Goldfinch reads a lot like a modern retelling of Oliver Twist. Theo is Oliver, wrenched from his comfortable existence and thrust into a harsh life with a Fagin-esque father who tries to bilk him of his inheritance and an Artful Dodger best friend in Boris. (And, though I know they appeared in Great Expectations, Mrs Barbour and Pippa reminded me a lot of Miss Havisham and Estella. Hmm - Pippa = Pip, another nod to that novel?)

That’s not to say it always works so well - some parts of the book are definitely tedious and far less engaging than others. Some of the upper class New York society scenes were dull and went on too long and I wasn’t into any aspect of the antiques trade, either reading about Hobie refurbishing furniture or Theo wheeling and dealing them. And, though the terrorist act that lights the narrative’s touchpaper was suitably exciting, a lot of the preamble up to it was uninteresting and excruciatingly sluggish. That preamble and first getting hit with Tartt’s unique way of writing and unhurried storytelling is why it’s taken me multiple attempts over the years to finally make it through the novel. But I knew it was going to be good once I eventually chose to persevere which is why I kept trying! 

It’s not totally a plotless book. There is the continual question of where Theo and the painting are going as well as a quietly tragic romance buried deep at the novel’s heart that’s very bittersweet. And I loved the whole Las Vegas episode which stands out as the most exciting part of the book. 

I can’t remember if it was this way with her other two novels (it’s been years) but Tartt really makes a hash of the ending here. She brings it around well so we get to see what happens to The Goldfinch itself and it’s all very satisfying but she spends way too many pages making Theo putz around not really doing anything. In that space she tries multiple times to give the novel various literary allusions and interpretations through the subject of the painting: a tethered bird. Which is fair as you could apply the image to numerous characters and situations here: Theo is metaphorically tethered to the painting for the entire book, as well as his doomed love Pippa, drugs, the mental scarring of the terrorist attack, his dead mother, and so on. In one line of reasoning, Tartt even posits that the novel is meaningless which it could well be but, if you accept the painting is as well, both are so well-crafted that that doesn’t make them worthless either. It just struck me as a messy and unimpressive way to end the book by artlessly lobbing one interpretation after another at the reader so obviously. 

But, clumsy attempts at highlighting that the book is to be considered Literature aside, it’s not hard to see why The Goldfinch won so many awards. Besides Tartt’s undeniable skill, it’s a great read with superb characters and many clever touches throughout. Carel Fabritius was killed in a gunpowder explosion much like the incident that Theo experiences at the start which connects him to Fabritius’ masterpiece. During Theo’s tortured time in Amsterdam, he walks the circular canal structure much like Dante’s circles of Hell. Besides Dickens’ Oliver Twist, there’s a case to be made for this being similar to another great writer’s famous work: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Like Fitzgerald, Tartt is drawn to the upper classes and you could compare Theo and Boris to Nick Carraway and Gatsby, the inexperienced young man and the more worldly friend. Fitzgerald also implied that Nick was gay while Theo and Boris’s relationship is more expressly confirmed. There’s more I’m forgetting overall but there’s a lot of detail layered within this massive book to reward careful readers. 

I’m glad I finally read The Goldfinch. I found it to be a very entertaining, memorable and compelling experience in all of the ways only great books can be. I recommend it with the added note that if you’re going to read it, be patient with it - it is absolutely worth the effort!

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