on October 22, 2013
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!
on December 2, 2013
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.
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.
on May 31, 2014
What kind of statement about contemporary literature is the Pulitzer committee making? In The Goldfinch they have honored page after repetitive page of alcohol- and drug-induced sloppy, reprehensible characters. This is no literary masterpiece. No prize winner. I can't help but think that the early hype and publisher's promotion of Donna Tartt's work teaches us more about commerce than about craft.
on May 27, 2014
This book has been highly praised and won the Pulitzer Prize, and I just don't get it. I read every word of this 700+ page book because my Book Club had chosen it based on the amazing reviews. Unfortunately, that is time and money I can't get back, but maybe I can caution others! The following contains a few minor spoilers.
First, the book is WAY too long. I don't mind a good long book that merits the length, but this book was in dire need of editing and could easily have been about two thirds as long. Having said that, the first half had promise, and is the reason why I gave the book two stars rather than just one. The description of the bombing at the museum is powerful. The author effectively evokes the disorientation and confusion that one would likely experience in such a traumatic event. It is heartbreaking as Theo waits for his Mom to return and eventually realizes she won't. I felt so much sympathy for this boy, because in the end no one really wants him, and he knows it.
The story begins to go south when Theo heads to Las Vegas. Still, I had great hopes for the book and the characters even through the endless chapters of teenage boys getting drunk and stoned and shoplifting. It is understandable that Theo would drown his sorrow and act out after such a tragedy. Surely, this character would evolve in some way. Eventually. Right?
Nope! More than a decade later Theo is a drug addict who takes advantage of the only decent person in the story and the only person who actually loves Theo. Grrrrr....
I read some reviews discussing how this book beautifully describes the powerful connection that can be experienced with some pieces of art. Now, I am no art aficionado, but even I was offended by how this painting was treated in this book. Theo "loves" this painting so much that he wraps it (or at least what he thinks is "it") in newspaper and endless amounts of tape, hauls it cross country on a bus, and hides it away in a storage locker that he never visits. Art abuse to the nth degree!
Basically the book is filled with two dimensional characters who do not evolve in any way. I won't even bother with the laughable plot line involving characters that are pure caricatures of Easter European mafia. (Oh, as Theo languishes in his hotel room after the incomprehensible caper, I found myself lamenting, "Oh, won't this story ever end?")
Cruelly, the book had one last, parting shot. Theo waxes philosophical for about 20 pages at the end (I read on a Kindle so I am approximating). After all he has gone through (and all we have gone through), his profound conclusion is this: life is cruel and there is no meaning to it. I can say the same thing about this book.
on December 29, 2013
What a rambling, maudlin piece of crap! I always finish a book to give it a chance, but this was beyond tedious. A completely unappealing protagonist, one-dimensional caricatures of supporting players, and plot that is just ridiculous. Dialogue is stilted and unnatural, with plot holes to drive a truck through. Don't waste your money or time on this.
on February 10, 2014
This was easily the most overrated book of 2013. I hated it. Let me try to explain why:
1. The constant use of superlative language: Every slam is deafening, every headache splitting, the narrator is "tormented" by small things (not the bombing that takes place in the beginning itself). Donna Tartt writes in a language of a cliche New York snob, where every little thing is forced to mean something or to be special. Horrible.
2. Cultural, but superficial name dropping (all the freaking time): 13 year olds with Palestrina on their Ipods (or Shostakovich), art history books that a kid carries with him, Tupac Shakur courses at high school, and on and on and on. Neither the narrator, nor the main characters are really affected by art. It does not serve any purpose here, other than Tartt showing off, in a patronizing and preaching manner: Disgusting.
3. Oh, boy, her problem with time: Ipods in 1999? Or references to 9/11? The research here is lousy, brands and products appear at times when there were not even launched or invented. Bad job, Donna, what did you do in those 10 years?
4. Length: 770 pages? Really? With endless sections about furniture restoration and drug use? With completely shallow and inconsistent characters, that are sketchy at best?
I am really sorry that I am using the superlative language I complained about myself, but this book was the worst I forced myself to read in a long time. What a waste of time.
on July 21, 2014
I prefer to phrase this negative review in positive terms.
I like novels that:
--Present at least one character I care about, whom I like, or whom I can root for;
--Tell an interesting and/or entertaining story and demonstrate a sense of humor;
--Teach me about times in history and places in the world that I am not familiar with;
--Are written in such a way that I cannot put the book down;
--Adopt a thoughtful and understanding perspective on the way people face challenges and difficulties in their lives, and avoid condescending to them;
--Are about working people, women, minorities, and so many other types of people throughout history (rather than spoiled middle or upper-class brats) who struggle against the obstacles designed to keep them in their place;
--Place their stories in a social, historical, or political context to help define the way their characters behave, rather than just elaboration in terms of individual psychology;
--Avoid wallowing in degeneracy, sex, violence, and despair for their own sake, or for the purpose of selling more books;
--Are more than just showpieces to demonstrate how intelligent and literate the author thinks he or she is;
--Are “hidden gems” that do not get the attention of elite literary critics concerned with promoting the “right” books to make a name for themselves;
--Affirm positive spiritual and personal values on some level, even if--actually, especially if--taking place in the worst possible environments;
--Show a picture of the author on the back cover as a real human being I would like to know more about, rather than one who is sneering at the reader.
The Goldfinch is the direct and thoroughly unpleasant opposite of all of these.
on November 17, 2013
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.
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.