Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

by Wendy

When poet Lucille Clifton taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I took several of her classes. As my fellow students and I sat around a conference table to critique each other’s poetry, Clifton would direct us to first state what we loved about the poems. After finishing The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s novel about Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy whose life takes a tragic, criminal trajectory after surviving an explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which results in the death of his beloved mother and his theft of a masterpiece, I asked myself: What do I love about this novel? Well, anything that brings attention to art is certainly something to love, right? And Tartt does so by making Carel Fabritius’ painting “The Goldfinch” the hub of her story. That she was successful in attracting attention to his piece is evidenced by headlines like “’The Goldfinch painting drawing big crowds since Donna Tartt book release” on and elsewhere. (Note: “The Goldfinch” is on display at The Frick Collection in New York until January 19.) She certainly writes well, giving us vivid characters and settings and a plot that keeps us turning pages. And in this day and age of sound bite attention spans and vapid voyeurism, what’s not to love about a book, any book, that’s receiving good reviews, selling well, and attracting readers?

Except I did feel like a voyeur. You know, not in a loose sense, but in that Merriam-Webster dictionary definition sense of “seeking the sordid or scandalous.” Reading The Goldfinch left me feeling like I had just watched a reality TV show and wondering, as Peggy Lee famously sang, “Is that all there is?” I didn’t know anything about Tartt prior to reading this book, but had I known, I would have expected characters who not only live in the moment, but who live narcissistic lives of indulgence (drugs, alcohol, greed); who lack moral centers (deceit, theft, forgery, murder); and who, ultimately, do not redeem themselves. Now I’m not a prude, nor do I think that all novels should be a story of good vs. evil, where good always wins, but we live in a world where not only can we watch such tales unfold on the Internet and in reality TV programs, but also in our very neighborhoods--so I guess I’m feeling saturated. I’d rather see a talent like Tartt give us a respite from this seemingly nightmarish world by providing hope for mankind in the halls of literature.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox! On to some elements that rang hollow: One, the point-of-view is first person in the form of Theo Decker at age twenty-seven, recounting in great detail the previous fourteen years. However, he sounds considerably older, for he has an impressive vocabulary, using words such as “cicatriced;” references people such as Carole Lombard, Dick Powell, and Bela Lugosi; and is comfortably knowledgeable about art. Not that men in their twenties can’t have impressive vocabularies and be knowledgeable of 1930s film stars and art, but Theo neither receives a stellar secondary education nor a degree in art and spends most of the book stoned or drunk. Is Tartt telling us that doctors and scientists are wrong, that drugs don’t kill brain cells?  The novel’s voice is more in line with the character of Andy, Theo’s nerdy friend, with whom he lives until being sent to live with his father, an alcoholic gambler, and girlfriend in Las Vegas. Yes, Theo spends time grieving and watching Turner Classic Movies, yes he goes to college, but these events still do not seem to be enough of a background for the level of diction and arcane associations.  

Secondly, it seems rather unbelievable that Theo could deceive, steal from (to the tune of 16K), and sully the reputation of a key character, James Hobart (who befriends Theo and provides both moral guidance and employment), and yet, at the end of the book, the two still enjoy a friendship and business relationship. Really?!  There are also some places where the book drags on and Tartt comes across as snooty (What Americans call apartments “flats,” toilets “loos,” or ping pong “table tennis”?), which are minor complaints compared to the didactic final pages where Tartt, in Theo’s voice, tells us Why These Characters Are Who They Are and What This Book Means.

I do admire Tartt’s talent, but it saddens me that society’s wicked underbellies are not only being documented, but almost celebrated, in her work.


  1. There is a difference between an apartment and a flat. I lived in a flat in San Francisco. A three story house with one flat per floor. I don't know what they call these in New York.

    I read Tartt's first book and had basically the same reaction to it that you've had to The Goldfinch. Additionally, I do not think she is a very good writer. I found her characters both annoying and unbelievable. They did so many things that defied reality, that I was laughing out loud by the end.

    I do not understand how she can be getting the praise she currently is. I think a lot of it is because of the painting.

  2. James,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my review and comment on it. I stand corrected on the use of the word "flat." (I did ask a NY friend, who told me apartments were just called apartments. But that's only one person.) Anyway, I wonder if Tartt has lived in England due to some of her language (and her nods to the Harry Potter books)or if it was arrogance, but it may simply be an influence by reading British writers. I don't know.I agree that the tie-in to the painting contributes to the novel's popularity (which is fine), but I also believe we are drawn in to the darker, seamier side of life. And perhaps to the hope that we can live without consequences.

  3. I haven't read this one yet, but my reaction to what you say about the 27-yer-old being stoned and drunk is that the most intelligent and widely-read of the college students I see year after year are sometimes the ones who go on to numb their pain and frustration with the world. They could kill off a lot of brain cells and have more left than another person.

  4. Jeanne,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on my review, especially since you haven't read the book. (Will you be reading it?) Anyway, I don't know what's sadder: that those with the most intellectual gifts are saddled with realizing the seemingly sad state of the world, or that they decide to deal with their frustration/depression/whatever by killing off brain cells. Imagine what those students could achieve with all of their brain cells intact.

  5. I have it on my stack of books to read, but am saving it for later in the year, since what I've read about it makes me think it might tip the delicate balance of seasonal affective disorder into depression, and that could lead to killing off brain cells, waiting for spring to come...

  6. The majority of reviews [on blogs] I have read seem similar to yours, in overall perspective, sort of like the book falling flat for most readers, on various levels. And yet I really enjoyed The Goldfinch, even citing it as one of my top five reads of the past year.
    I think you have a valid point in what you say of Theo's seeming unaccounted-for erudition, eloquence, and incidental knowledge. As in, where-did-it-come-from etc.? Were I to make a similar criticism, I would probably point to his friend Boris in the book -- which seemed to me an increasingly unlikely character in many ways. I Mean, he was way more of a stoner than Theo ever was, and yet -- in the last third of the book he emerges as this somehow brilliant shyster, again, having a depth of knowledge that seems to come from nowhere he's been in the former sections of the book. Other than being well-travelled, he seemed like a dolt all the way through, until he suddenly is this mastermind in the seemy world of art forgery, art ransom, or whatnot.
    I found also that the amounts of money all over the place seemed weird. Not only with respect to the art world, but even in Theo's furniture business adventures -- it's like everyone was a millionaire all of a sudden somehow.
    Anyhoo -- far be it from me to diss Donna Tartt, I overall was really captivated by this book and her others. as well. The best [in my opinion] being her first, The Secret History.

  7. Cipriano,

    Thanks for reading my review and for taking the time to share your input. I agree with your assessment of Boris and the unbelievability of the wealth nearly everyone had. Anyway,I think I'll give Tartt's first book a go. I don't like to think I'm so close-minded as to dismiss or embrace any writer based on one book.

  8. I think you will be pleased with The Secret History.
    It's more fine-tuned that The Goldfinch, in my opinion.

  9. Anonymous11:22 AM

    Excellent identification.

  10. Such a simple basic premise to start the fascinating journey through a life. The consequences of one automatic action resonate through the developing character of the 'hero' and we see him changing to accommodate the lie. Utterly intriguing and involving, I couldn't put it down!


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