Donna Tartt’s third novel, “The Goldfinch,” is one of the most acclaimed works of literary fiction from 2013, chosen as one of the ten best books of the year on more than a few such lists and garnering the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It also spent over thirty weeks on the New York Times’ best seller list, indicating it was popular with the readers of such works.
And since Warner Brothers has purchased the rights to the book for purposes of turning it into a movie, it merits a review here, especially since this review will offer a variant opinion of the prodigious tome.
To start on a positive note, the book most certainly reflects the author’s brilliance, not so much as a writer, but as a savant. In “Goldfinch,” Ms. Tartt shows herself to be someone who knows a great deal about many things that most people know very little about (and may care about even less). Her novel is 771 pages long, and most of those pages are devoted to details that are descriptive in the extreme. The title of the book refers to a famous painting by the seventeenth century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, and, as might be expected, Ms. Tartt provides intricate details in her protagonist’s first-person narrative about the artist, this particular painting, and the period in art history it represents.
But she also provides intricate details on dozens of other subjects, ranging from furniture (historical styles and methods used to refurbish worn or damaged pieces) to sailing (including even how to tack against the wind). And many of these subjects are of only peripheral relevance (at best) to the underlying story she is telling.
That story, told by a male character who is thirteen when the book begins and maybe in his mid-thirties when it ends, is decidedly thin when all the “excess baggage” is stripped away. It could probably be told succinctly in one hundred pages and would contain precious few page-turning sections. In sum, it concerns how the thirteen-year-old came into possession of the painting, how he attempted to safeguard it for many years, how he lost it, and how he went about trying to regain it.
Of course, many a great novel has been constructed out of a thin story; such is the magic of great writing in literary fiction. But great writing also requires compelling characters and vivid descriptions of setting and action. In this regard, Ms. Tartt is only moderately successful. Many of her characters are only superficially drawn, principal among them being the protagonist’s parents, both of whom are central figures in the story. Ms. Tartt alludes to characteristics without providing insight into how or why those characteristics exist. In particular, the protagonist’s father is portrayed as a stereotypical loser, bent on self-destruction. As the protagonist takes on many of those same characteristics over the course of the book, it would have been helpful to have a better picture of the genesis of the father’s flaws. None, unfortunately, are provided.
The protagonist himself is less than fully explored, so that his “awakening,” if it can be described as such, in the book’s concluding pages, is far less compelling than it could have been. The metaphysical musing he engages in at that point is certainly the book’s pay-off, and it raises legitimate existential imponderables, but a reader might well wonder why and how this particular character came to think along those lines after having shown so little propensity to do so over the course of the preceding 750 pages.
And then there is Ms. Tartt’s prose, which is, um, excessive. If you like overly long sentences, you’ll love her book, because it is replete with many that run over 100 words. Here’s one such sentence:
I couldn’t stop thinking about the Thanksgiving before; it kept playing and re-playing like a movie I couldn’t stop: my mother padding around barefoot in old jeans with the knees sprung out, opening a bottle of wine, pouring me some ginger ale in a champagne glass, setting out some olives, turning up the stereo, putting on her holiday joke apron, and unwrapping the turkey breast she’d bought us in Chinatown only to wrinkle her nose and start back at the smell—“Oh God, Theo, this thing’s gone off, open the door for me”—eyewatering ammonia reek, holding it out before her like an undetonated grenade as she ran with it down the fire stairs and out to the garbage can on the street while I—leaning out from the window—made gleeful retching noises from on high.
That 137-word sentence might be fine if it described anything of consequence to the story. Suffice to say it doesn’t. But consider reading a succession of such sentences all interposed as “color” around the basic story of Theo and his possession of the painting. It makes reading this novel far less pleasurable than it otherwise might be.
Finally, a word about the story’s denouement: it takes place “off-screen,” meaning it is not told by the protagonist but, rather, is told to him by his best friend. And so the reader is deprived of a first-person description of these events and is instead given an account, almost as an aside, by a secondary character. It will be interesting to see how the screenplay version depicts this end of the story. A good bet would be that it will be shown as an action scene and not as a narrative from a friend.
“The Goldfinch” is the work of a brilliant writer who writes with an academic tone. It’s the kind of book that many have apparently found engrossing, but reading it is also, in a word, laborious.