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on December 4, 2013
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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on January 5, 2014
I (along with most of the 1 star reviewers) do not understand what all the hype is about surrounding this horrilby written, fragmented, self-indulgent piece of garbage. Stephen King even calls this a masterpiece on the jacket blurb? WHAT? Did we read the same book? And most of the 5 star reviews sound like they were press releases written by her publisher (although, in fairness, most people talk in this disjointed, sound bite manner, so who can tell anymore what is hype and what is opinion). Anyway, this book is just self-indulgent clap-trap from an author who can at times write very lyrical prose, but a good editor should have pulled several hundred pages from the manuscript or not published the book.

Tartt hasn't written a novel in 10 years. If she spent that time working on this novel, she wasted a decade. Most of the characters are unsympathetic, the narrator is completely unreliable (and not in a good way), the issues of time/technology (iPhones/iPads, etc. appear in timelines where they wouldn't have existed) and a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that is used as a plot device to get things rolling (not believeable on its face if you've ever set foot in the museum) are beyond annoying! I went with the plot devices though because I really truly wanted to like this book, but when the narrator is talking about an apartment on 7th Avenue that he supposedly lived in and also describes an apartment on Beekman Place, I have to wonder if he even knows where the hell he lived. But again, he is unreliable as a drug-addled mess.

Boris, one of the other characters, is a Polish/Russian/Ukrainian something (clearly eastern European, but that is about as well narrowed down as it gets) and when Tartt writes dialogue in his characters voice, I can hear a Russian accent. But when she is writing dialogue for another character, Hobie, who is from Albany, NY, there is a decidedly English ring to everything that he says, although he is clearly not English. All of the male characters are broken creatures who have mommy issues, all of the women are either dead or leave one wishing they were, and while sections of this book are page turning, there is no payoff at the end and her diatribe about art and philosophy that takes up the last 20 pages of this ridiculous rambling mess, leaves me wondering if she has a point of view on the subject, which would be extremely helpful as she is the bloody author!

I will end here, as I fear I'm beginning to ramble as badly as the author does in this nearly 800 page disaster, but suffice it to say I cannot recommend this book.
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VINE VOICEon October 7, 2013
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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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!
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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.
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on October 23, 2013
First let me say this is a review of only the first chapter "Boy with a Skull." I have always enjoyed Tartt's writing. However before I invest further time in The Goldfinch I would like some feedback/advice on one particular aspect in the first chapter that really grated on me. Theo is first introduced in a hotel room in Amsterdam. And here my problem begins. His lengthy observations of what he sees outside seemed a bit much. Then, when we are in New York his lengthy descriptions of mother, doorman hailing a cab and then his observations from the cab(not once but twice and it was a very short cab ride) of people on the sidewalks and then his lengthy and overly detailed observation of the girl in the museum and then as he makes his way out of the rubble after the explosion he observes more than is necessary and more times than we need to read of, an extensive list of emergency responders, i.e., NYPD, FDNY, K-9, Rescue Operations Battalion, Hazmat, etc. etc. When I am only one chapter into a book and I'm already skimming lines and paragraphs and becoming really irritated with the writer, I wonder if it's worth going on. Such GLOWING reviews this book has gotten! I hoped I would dive into it and never want to surface. If someone reads this review please let me know if the repetitious observations by Theo and/or other characters is a pattern throughout the book.
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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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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.
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on November 8, 2013
Although Donna Tartt really does write wonderfully hypnotically, and I love that, this book went nowhere and took forever to get there. I had read about 300 pages when I started thinking, am I going to have to read every thought this kid has, for every minute of the rest of his life? And when, god, when, can we get OUT of Las Vegas, ugh, what a BORING setting, and to go on for hundreds of pages, it was just torture, so I started skimming and then realized that nothing ever does happen. Theo grows up to be just like his father, whiny, self-obsessed, incapable, and corrupt. By the time I was done with the book, I didn't want to hear one more word on the loss of his mother. I just did not care anymore. I am SO disappointed. My advice is to read a couple hundred pages in the book store and then decide whether to buy it.
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on February 20, 2014
This site certainly doesn't need another review to add to the over 7,000 already here. I won't add much to the discourse, but I'm doing this for my own satisfaction and to write down my thoughts about this book that can be both awesome and awful.

Donna Tartt is at times a brilliant writer and a masterful wordsmith. But she reminds me of a Grammy-winning jazz trombonist that I saw at a club once. He was an amazing technician and could coax more notes and different sounds out of the trombone than anyone I had ever heard. And while I could certainly appreciate his technical abilities and marvel at the otherwordly sounds he could create with the instrument, in the end the performance was not satisfying. I was looking for some semblance of a melody and artistry at least somewhat pleasant to the ear, but what I got was a cacophanous display of technical ability.

Yes, you can have too much of a good thing. And Donna Tartt proves it with The Goldfinch. No matter how skillfully she writes about Theo's drug-fueled escapades in Las Vegas, we are so tired of hearing about them after a while. And regardless of how well she conveys all of the things going through his mind while holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, we just don't care at some point.

I understand the tendency of a good writer to do more of what she does well. What I don't understand is the writer's conceit in not recognizing and overcoming that tendency. While I see this as a serious fault in a writer, I find it unforgivable in an editor. Both of them are guilty of taking a 500 page great book and turning it into an 800 page good book.
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