Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I don't know what I can say about The Goldfinch that hasn't already been written. It's a novel that has long stretches of engaging writing, and between those stretches are long stretches of dull writing. It's a thoughtful, meandering, wordy text that wanders almost without purpose until coming to a bleak, but daring, philosophical worldview that may or may not have needed nearly 800 pages of story to come to. It has characters like Boris who are lively and compelling, and those like Theo, the main character, who aren't particularly likable and who don't really do anything except have stuff happen to them. Except for Hobie, Pippa, and Mrs. Barbour, every single character becomes involved in something shady, whether it's hard drugs or becoming a con artist - does this truly reflect our world? And this novel really doesn't do its female characters any justice, perhaps with the exception of Mrs. Barbour, who is a marvelous character. One woman is Theo's love interest, but she's out of his reach, and the other is the beautiful rich girl he seems bound to get married to, even though she's clearly wrong for him. All of this is to say, this is what won the Pulitzer?

So many stories written today seem to revolve around a white family that's in poverty, though their version of poverty seem more middle class than poor. Such is the case for Theo's family. His mom and dad divorced and his dad is nowhere in sight. But his mom is angelic. Everyone loves her, and everyone reviles the character who is his father. Of course, all of this we learn only gradually. This is a novel that unfolds slowly. It doesn't have a plot structure, per se, attempting to go with the path of unpredictability, but in the end everything revolves (and in the end rather unconvincingly) around a painting called the Goldfinch. This painting is at the heart of the story, and also not at its heart, beginning with the moment Theo's mom admires it just before the museum they are visiting explodes. At the behest of an older man, named Weltie, who was with a younger girl, Pippa, Theo takes a ring from Weltie and the painting of the Goldfinch from the museum and escapes. Thus begins the series of events where things happen to Theo and he more or less passively goes along on the ride.

Much is made of Tartt's writing style, but I don't particularly see what's so special about it with this novel. What Tartt specializes in, it seems, is lists, lots of lists. Lengthy passages consist of long lists of details that are meant to give us insight into major characters. For example, when we get to know Boris, there are lists of what Boris likes, there are lists of what Boris and Theo do together, and there are more lists about what they do together, and again more. It's as though major portions of the story are written with the movie montage in mind. The dialogue as well is not very engaging. I think Tartt's attempt is to write how people talk, and she may just succeed because sometimes how people talk is not particularly engaging. The dialogue consists largely of Theo listening to the ramblings of another character (and Boris is the biggest rambler of all), and these ramblings become more like lunatic ravings as the character frequently changes topic, goes off on tangents, and then comes back to the point. This is particularly maddening at the end, when stuff is happening, and it takes Boris ten or twenty pages to get to the point.

Not to say this is a terrible book. I'm glad I read it. Tartt shines in portraying Theo's grief after the museum bombing. When we first meet Boris the story truly comes alive. And there are moments later on, too, that are intriguing. But there are just as many that are not. If you plan on reading this nearly-800 page epic, be prepared for long moments of tedium mixed with the long moments of engagement. Ultimately, what I think about this book comes down to when people ask me if I like it. I admire it on some level. But on another level I find it difficult to recommend. And that, I think, is the true test of a book's worth. I just don't know very many people who would enjoy reading it.

1 comment:

  1. I was one of the few who didn't like The Secret History so I wasn't sure that I should make the effort with this one. I think I'll pass.