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3.7 out of 5 stars
The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
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1,828 of 1,980 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I won't go into the plot since everyone will know it. My concern whenever I'm given or purchase a very long book is, "Will it keep me engaged?" and is it worth the weeks it will take me to finish it?"

The answer with THE GOLDFINCH is "Yes!" and "Sorta!"

To me, the book is divided into sections or novellas--the explosion, living with the wealthy family, moving to Vegas, etc.

The brilliant opening section immediately kept me engaged--I think the explosion and Theo's experience and recovery is some of the best writing I've read in years.

The family he moves in with may remind you of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS or Salinger's Glass family. They are funny, a bit tragic and sort of odd. The father especially--something about his behavior seemed a bit "off" as did his wild dialogue; it didn't seem at all "real" in a novel that's very grounded in reality. (It's revealed later why he behaves this way.)

The next--and for me, strongest novella--takes place in Las Vegas where we "live" with Theo's father and girlfriend. The writing is vivid, the characters and plot really move along and it's all terrific.

And then, for me, THE GOLDFINCH seems to stall a bit and slightly loses its way. This painting that Theo carries with him seems to be forgotten about and then every 100 pages or so is mentioned again (not that we care.)

There's a novella about dealing in art (collection and deception) and our hero takes a downward turn, but I found myself losing interest and by page 600 was growing impatient for it to end...or for the plot to kick in again as it did in the first few sections.

The great thing about this book is that you can set it aside for a few days and pick it up again and not be "lost"--the writing and characters are that strong. The "plot" on the other hand seems to grow thinner and less important as you head down the last 200 plus pages as "big issues" are thoughtfully woven in.

I'm sure this will receive many 4 and 5 star ratings, but I'm giving it a very good solid 3 since, unfortunately, it seemed to run out of gas toward the end. But those first 600 pages -- great, great stuff!
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1,318 of 1,485 people found the following review helpful
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I passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day and was struck with a powerful and initially inexplicable melancholy. I had been affected by the experience of reading The Goldfinch, in the opening chapters of which a great tragedy happens there. The book is compelling and moving. Tartt is a master of foreshadowing, letting us know just enough of what is to come that we feel helpless to put down the book. I found myself staying up late for several nights, turning page after page to connect the dots. This book is every bit the equal of The Secret History in this regard. And it exceeds that earlier book in its great emotional depth. The opening section, in New York City, is terribly sad and in the hands of a lesser author this material would be difficult to get past. However, Tartt has signaled us well enough about the future of our protagonist, Theodore Dekker, that we stick with him. And from the second section of the book, while we have no shortage of continuing misery, it is tempered by hope or humor.

This is not to say that the book is necessarily realistic; it is structurally a Bildungsroman, and it constantly evokes earlier books rather than real life. In the opening section, when Theo is still living in New York City, I particularly detected The Catcher in the Rye. When he moves in with the family of a wealthy school friend, his hope of being adopted by them evokes elements of Great Expectations, a book that is recalled again when he returns to them over a decade later to find the matron of the family shut away like Miss Havisham (though for very different reasons). He is taken away to Las Vegas and falls in with a bad crowd, evoking Oliver Twist. As in that book, the reader understands that some of this crowd provide necessary support for the young man. Theo returns to New York and, years later, finds himself exploring dark places with Boris, his criminally inclined Las Vegas friend, following the trail of a missing painting. This reminded me of the best work of Stephen Dobyns. Some parts of the book even recall The Maltese Falcon, though the book treats its namesake artwork as more than merely a MacGuffin. Others will find different precedents, I'm sure. This book is long and rich.

Tartt took over a decade to write The Goldfinch, and polished its language over that time. In Las Vegas, for example, Theo describes his new quarters as "the kind of room where a call girl or stewardess would be murdered on television." Tartt has so much fun with the speaking cadence of drunk Russians (or Ukranians), I have to imagine she spends a fair amount of time with Slavs. Dialect humor is rare nowadays, but here it is done with such love that it's inoffensive and often quite funny.

I've not spent time in the failed housing developments at the extremes of Las Vegas, nor with Ukrainian drug dealers, but Tartt portrays these worlds so vividly I don't doubt her depictions of them at all. The quality of the plotting, the characterizations, and the dialog in this book are consistently excellent. As Stephen King wrote of The Goldfinch in the New York Times Book Review, "You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but . . . they never do."

What's not so perfect? Though Tartt captures the subtleties of several different kinds of relationships between men, much better than I would have thought possible for a female author, the relationships between Theo Dekker and women never quite ring true. One may give the excuse that Theo is so damaged by the loss of his mother that he is never again capable of normal relationships with the opposite sex, but I think this explanation takes one only so far.

The passages in which Theo crams for university entrance exams seem hard to believe and, oddly for a tome like this, rushed.

Finally, and this is not Tartt's fault, I'm sure, the paper in the hardcover edition is too thin. I suspect the publisher winced at receiving an 800 page manuscript and decided to print on thin paper in the hope of creating a less intimidating volume on bookstore shelves. When reading page 403, you have to ignore the backwards shadow of the words on page 404, overleaf.

Tartt tackles broad themes in this book: to what degree can we control our fate? Or does life unspool in response only to forces beyond our control, including randomness? These are common enough topics for novelists, and I found myself dwelling particularly on some of the book's secondary themes, as they are less commonly discussed. Can humans create objects that have souls, and what obligation do we have to our creations, and is there any meaningful way in which artifacts make life worth living? What is the significance of authenticity, and can a copy ever be as significant as the original? Can we be moved sometimes by the absence of something as much as we would have been by its presence? In a profile of Tartt on October 21, the New York Times said that this book raises such questions as "whether it is possible to be good, what part love plays in our behavior and what in life is true and lasting."

It's a wonderful book, worth every penny and every hour needed to read it.
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254 of 285 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover
It's been a long time since I found a book so alternately beautiful and maddening. There are excellent scenes and lines in this novel, and I'm glad I read it, but it doesn't hold together well. In the end it reminded me of the antique shop the character Hobie runs in the book: many amazing, high-quality things half-hidden beneath mounds of less interesting stuff.

Tartt deserves credit for daring greatly in this book. It's hard to center a long novel on a fairly unlikeable character, and even harder when that character is also the narrator. In Theo Decker I felt she was trying to get at the ways a severe psychic injury plays out over a lifetime, and for the first half of the book I was fascinated by Theo even when I didn't like him. And Tartt does lay the groundwork carefully for his later misdeeds, particularly in Theo's unwanted resemblance to his father. But once Theo becomes an adult (in years if not in maturity), he makes so many stupid decisions, and is so apathetic about his life generally, that it got increasingly difficult for me to care what happened to him. It's also hard to reconcile how Theo can act as he does while having the insights he articulates. I understand that this is part of what Tartt is trying to explore (why people don't do what they know, at some level, they should do), but I don't think it quite comes off here. Theo's character felt too inconsistent to sustain the whole novel.

The high points of the novel for me were Theo's life immediately after the explosion that kills his mother, when he is taken in by the wealthy family of a school friend, and his relationship with Hobie, the furniture dealer who takes him on as a kind of apprentice. As in "The Secret History," Tartt excels in showing the dark underside of wealth and privilege, and it wasn't a surprise when members of the wealthy family turn up later in Theo's life and play some decisive roles. As for Hobie, I wanted to read a whole novel about him, because the portions that describe his sense for furniture and his love for the past were some of the strongest in the book. Boris, the Russian-born friend Theo makes during his sojourn in Las Vegas with his gambler father, is also a vivid character, and I appreciated that Tartt took his character in directions I didn't expect.

It's the ending (and by "ending" I mean about the last 200 pages) that was the real problem for me. The violence and cross-continents chase scenes just didn't ring true. This part of the book, in which more "happens" in plot terms, was actually the hardest to get through. Tartt excels at rendering the inner lives of characters, but the action scenes fall flat.

I hate giving this novel a mediocre rating, because I appreciate the ambition it embodies and the parts of it in which Tartt's prose really sings. She's engaging some important questions about the power of art in this book, and the scenes that feature Theo thinking through his relationship with the purloined painting were moving and thought-provoking. The novel as a whole just doesn't measure up to its best components, sadly.
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1,124 of 1,286 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Let me start by saying Secret History is one of my favorite books. Having heard of this as a literary triumph better than History, I was really looking forward to reading it.

While a certain amount of hype has been bought and paid for, the rapturous reviews of this book leave me wondering how intellectually bankrupt this country must be to find this work brilliant.
It is brilliant only if you think Gone Girl was brilliant. Which is to say it is uneven, speech-y instead of profound, and badly in need of one of the editors of yore.

What I did like: the plot is creative, the work is ambitious, and the first 1/3 is engrossing and addictive.

What I didn't like: there are plot twists that are beyond absurd, there is far too much self-congratulatory philosophizing stuck in at the end in incredibly forced exposition. The end reads like student work. The characters are unlike able, and there are pages, pages and pages of drug addiction descriptions that begin to read like pornography. Characters are thinly drawn, and plot lines are left more unresolved than resolved (not for ambiguity's sake, because it seems she just forgot about them).

The brilliance of the Secret History was that Tartt was writing from her own world. Every detail, no matter how unlikely, rang true. History is engrossing at every turn. Goldfinch is so off from reality that it at points becomes unreadable and even laughable. Her notions of adoption, investigation, terrorism, male mindset, and the mental and intellectual capabilities of children, are naively imagined and poorly researched, as are all of the relationships between characters. Goldfinch reads as intellectual writerly masturbation. It reads, in all honesty, as childish and undergraduate, while History, her undergraduate novel, reads as stunningly mature.

It bothers me as a reader when middle brow novels are held up as great, brilliant, and intellectual. This is an ambitious book and an interesting book, but it is not a great book. It's an elevated pot boiler, and it's at points unnecessarily hard to read. If this is the height of
American letters, we should be very worried.
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205 of 234 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Given all of the amazing reviews, and the NY Times rating, I had really high expectations. The story started off really strong and interesting, but became tedious, to the point that by the end I was skipping pages just to get through it.
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261 of 301 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Oh my,talk about loquacious, this book is one that could have been really,really good but every,little,wee,tiny,thing was just written to death. I found myself saying "oh for God's sake get ON with it" you are numbing my brain! But alas,Ms.Tartt never did "get on with it." The protagonist's seminal "event" an explosion in a museum,went on, I kid you not, for over 150 pages of single spaced fairly small type I finally gave up,decided the "day" was never going to end and skipped ahead to the next "event" found it to be equally done to death and skipped ahead again and heaven help us, ditto... droning on and on and on.

Finally, in utter frustration I decided to just skip the rest of the book.

Why this novel got so much praise I'm afraid I just can't fathom. Ms.Tartt does have talent and in places in the book I was "caught up" by her writing but her wordy-ness was totally off putting and frankly, made what could have been a decent book, a total drone of a thing that one felt one needed to put Wellies on to slug through.
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325 of 377 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Were you one of the few who actually read all of Great Expectations in that ninth grade English class? Then you know what Dickens is all about—and you’ll know right away that Donna Tartt is no Dickens, despite the chorus of frog-like critics croaking praises in the swamp of modern American fiction. I loved Tartt’s Secret History. But this novel is self-indulgent in the extreme, substituting endless, tedious, repetitious descriptions for character development, plot, and meaning. Do we really care about descriptions of drug induced ecstasy—over and over? Or about a total loser like Boris dragging our hero off the rails of sanity, honesty, and decency to no novelistic or moral end? The trope of the Goldfinch and the meaning of life, beaten into us in the last few pages, is really, really jejune—all about Fate and how to deal with it in life. Wow! Deep! This book desperately needed an editor who could stand up to a novelist out of control, to insist on control. And to close the circle, please, please—no more comparisons to Dickens. Ms. Tartt, you are no Charles Dickens.
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381 of 443 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Please explain to me where I am wrong, and I'll delete this review. (I haven't yet finished reading the novel, but have enough information to establish an opinion about the flow, the pace, the plot. But that's not what concerns me today.)

OK, the narrator starts out by saying he is 27 years old and recalls events which happened 14 years earlier, correct? Let us be generous and say it is 2013 in this critically acclaimed novel (although it must have been written and finished earlier than this year), and 14 years earlier when the narrator was 13 years old was, let's see, 1999, right? (D'uh!) (I've found no indications that the narration starts out in the future!) Everyone in this novel has a cellphone. The 13 year old narrator has an iPod. The iPod was introduced by Apple in 2001. There are references to Harry Potter. OK, the first Harry Potter volume was published in 1997. What about the reference to the shoe bomber? (2001 as well.) Las Vegas, we are made to understand, is undergoing a housing crisis in 1999, abandoned homes, desert reclaiming developments, cheap rents (check yourself if that is true for the late 1990s.) Well, at least the 1933 movie "SOS Iceberg" checks out, although how and where these 13 year old characters had heard of such an obscure film is not explained.

And if the narrative is indeed in the future and time remembered by the narrator now in 2013, then how many 13 year olds today (or anyone?) would know or remember the shoe bomber of 2001?

More. Theo's Las Vegas pal is for an unexplained reason tri-national, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian. Or is the reason to show his vast knowledge of obscenities in three and more (he's widely traveled) languages? You should savor the conversations between Theo and this Boris (or Borys in Ukrainian, as the author sees necessary to inform us), endless exchanges of eF words, and later on cryptic cellphone text messages (again in 1999, at the latest.)

You can mess with geography and weather in fiction. You can invent events, such as the museum bombing in this novel, invent cities and streets, businesses on existing streets, but when you start messing with time, you've entered the science fiction category and even science fiction has its rules which this novel does not seem to observe. End result is a confused, distracted reader.
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92 of 104 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Do writers think that length equals quality? Or is it simply their demand to be taken seriously? A lot of the books acclaimed this year have been very long ones. Some examples, just among those that I have read, have been THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton (830 pages), THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL By Bob Shacochis (712 pages), NIGHT FILM by Marissa Pessl (592 pages), THE SON by Philipp Meyer (572 pages), and LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson (527 pages). All of these books had interesting qualities, but my enjoyment in each case (except possibly the Catton) was compromised by sheer length. Both Shacochis and Pessl piled incident on highly colored incident; the last generation in Meyer's multi-generational epic was less interesting than the other two; and the open-ended structure of Atkinson's extraordinary approach to story-telling could have been any length at all.

At 771 pages, this latest by Donna Tartt weighs in near the top of the class. But why wait ten years to write a book of this length, rather than publish two or three shorter novels in the same time? The entire story could easily have been a trilogy, and I could have enjoyed any one of the volumes separately, especially given its arresting opening. It first drew me into its orbit on page 22. Theo Decker, the 13-year-old protagonist, enters a New York exhibit of Dutch painting with his mother. Tartt's writing, which had been serviceable up to that time, bursts into bloom with a glorious paragraph that exactly captures the luminous wonder of the Dutch Golden Age. Soon after that, the main plot kicked in, and we were away. The museum is targeted by a terrorist bomb. Theo's mother is killed; he survives. But first comes a dazed encounter with a dying man in the rubble, who gives him a signet ring and an address to take it to, and entrusts him with the small painting by Carel Fabritius called "The Goldfinch" that had featured in the exhibition.

[SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH if you do not want to know any more about the plot, though the details below are minor ones.] I mentioned trilogy since the rest of the novel falls roughly into three phases, each relating to one of the things that Theo lost or gained on that day: his mother, the ring, and the painting. So the next 250 pages have to do with Theo's life as an orphan, virtually adopted by a wealthy family on the Upper East Side. This certainly held my interest, but when Theo's vanished father turns up to cart him off the Las Vegas, my attention began to flag. The middle section overlaps with the other two. It begins when Theo presents the ring at an antique store in Greenwich Village and meets the dead man's partner, a furniture restorer called Hobie, a wonderfully sympathetic character, who brings the story to life whenever he appears. Under his loving tutelage, Theo learns the antiques business, and how to tell the real from the fake. But as we move into the last 300 pages of the book, following a gap of eight years, Theo's life becomes increasingly dominated by his continued possession of the painting which, together with a series of foolish choices of his own, drags him down into a shady underworld without a moral compass.

For the huge book to work as a whole, you must have one or more of these things: a prose style that is a joy in itself, or an all-embracing formal structure, or a sequence of events that keeps you fascinated throughout, or character development that is consistent from beginning to end and traces some clear arc, or some major theme or moral payoff that makes the long journey worthwhile. Donna Tartt's style seldom reaches to those heights, but in all fairness few of the writers I mention above are especially noted for their prose. Her roughly chronological organization is at least straightforward, but she does not have the tight control of Catton, and a lot of her material seems arbitrary. She keeps minor events coming without falling into the hyperactivity of Shacochis or Pessl, but moves too slowly in significant ways to maintain the necessary momentum, leaving several thickets of dead wood. I do think she created a very attractive character in the young Theo at first, but either I did not see the organic evolution into the man he becomes, or I simply did not want to stick with him as he falls into foolish, addictive, or criminal behaviors.

And as for the overriding moral, consider what he says near the end of the book: "No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe." If you care to read 771 pages to reach that conclusion, go for it. But be warned: it is a long haul.
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222 of 257 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Ms. Tartt is no doubt a gifted writer. Where is her editor?! It's pretty shameful. So after a writer as a few bestsellers to her name, she's untouchable to editor's suggestions? There are countless instances in this book where the writer says something absolutely brilliant, but then proceeds to tell you what she just said in the most banal prose you've ever heard. It's unbelievable. How could an editor not see that and say, "You've got a masterful book here, just lose the tiresome reiterations." What a missed opportunity this book is.
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