Book Review – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It’s never a good sign when a novel reminds me of something my lawyer told me to do. He gave me the following instructions, “whenever you’re on the stand, be brief. Get right to the point. Keep it simple. When people ramble they give the prosecutor lots of things to question.” As I am a free man who’s never been convicted of criminal wrongdoing, I think it fair that I use the same criteria as a book reviewer. Unfortunately, the inordinate length of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, gave me a lot of things to question while reading it.

Overall, I liked the premise of the book. Tartt presented the tale of Theodore Decker, a thirteen year old who lost his mother in a terrorist attack. He responded to this tragedy in the way one would expect a troubled young man to behave: through drugs, alcohol and art theft. Okay, maybe the later was an atypical reaction, but he did eventually graduate to consumer fraud.

In spite of the protagonist’s bad behavior, the author presented his story in a way that made me wish him the best. I thought of him as a Holden Caulfield type only lacking in self-restraint. Part of my empathy stemmed from having lost my own mother four years ago. One of the lines in the story really resonated with me.

Every new event – everything I did for the rest of my life – would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer part of, an ever growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away. (Page 89)

It’s a sad thought, but, nevertheless, an accurate one regarding the loss of a loved one.

The author presented some good uses of language. I liked the expression, “oddly screaming silence.” (Page 45) Another memorable passage read: “the blue-green transparency of the stones, their wicked three a. m. gleam, were as much a part of her as the color of her eyes or the spicy dark smell of her hair.” (Page 344) Lyrical flourishes like this made the long narrative a bit more appealing.

The Goldfinch contained a lot of memorable characters. Theo made for a very compelling protagonist. The members of his surrogate family, the Barbours, each had unique quirks that kept me wondering what unusual things they would do next. I also enjoyed reading about Theo’s father and his “associates” in Las Vegas. To put it in the most polite language I can, Xandra, the father’s girlfriend, was a train wreck as a step mom. Please remember the book as a work of fiction when I write: that enhanced my enjoyment of Xandra’s character.

With that out of the way, I did find serious flaws in the book. As I wrote earlier, it could’ve used some serious editing. The Goldfinch came in at a monumental 775 pages. A number of scenes in this book were way too drawn out. In the beginning when Theo and his mother traveled to the museum I almost gave up on the book. As I kept thinking “get to the point, get to the point” so often my mind drifted away from the story. I’m not going to mention every scene that could’ve been paired down, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this book could’ve been cut by at least 300 pages.

And then there was the exposition. Here’s Mr. Silver’s description of his origins in the town of Canarsie.

“My family, they were there for four generations. My grandfather Saul ran one of the first kosher restaurants in America, see. Big, famous place. Closed when I was a kid, though. And then my mother moved us to Jersey after my father died so we could be closer to my uncle Harry and his family.” (Page 311)

Mr. Silver played a very minor role in the story. I didn’t care about his family’s provenance when I first read it and I care even less about it now. I’d classify this blurb as exposition for exposition’s sake.

And there was more. In the passage below Theo’s summarized a conversation between his father and Xandra.

…I knew this story. My dad, who’d been a drama star in college, had for a brief while earned his living as an actor: voice-overs in commercials, a few minor parts (a murdered playboy, the spoiled son of a mob boss) in television and movies. Then—after he’d married my mother—it had all fizzled out. He had a long list of reasons why he’d broken through, though as I’d often heard him say: if my mother had been a little more successful as a model or worked a little harder at it, there would’ve been enough money for him to concentrate on acting without worrying about a day job. (Page 199)

I have to admit, I knew the story as well as his father’s acting career came up various times during the narrative. In addition, since the father and Xandra lived together and had been dating for some time: wouldn’t he have already had this conversation with her? I guess his skill at self-editing as deficient as the author’s.

One last point I’d like to make: I didn’t think this book would ever end. In the last section Theo ruminated on the new direction his life was taking, he drew parallels between the painting The Goldfinch and life itself, etc. The rest of the book, while verbose and drawn out, had a decent narrative flow. This part read like a philosophical treatise the author rushed through. It lacked the same conversational tone of the rest of the story.

Ms. Tartt did an exceptional job creating memorable characters. She deserves great credit for making a reprehensible protagonist a likable one for readers. For me, the author took way too much time doing so. The Goldfinch could’ve been more effective in half as many pages. I’d suggest waiting until an abridged version comes out before reading it.

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2 comments

  1. I saw Katherine Craft, author of “The Art of Falling,” mention this book on Facebook. She said it was long but that she got through it. Must be worth reading. Thanks for this.

  2. I agree with Kevin’s critique. I loved Teo’s description of Mrs Vogel when Hobie invited him to dinner. “No thanks,” I said, conscious of Mrs. Vogel’s gaze boring in on me, cold fraudulent smile, eyes like agate chips in her smooth, aging-milkmaid face. (page 459)

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