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Friday
Nov222013

« In Which We Return To The Scene Of The Crime »

All That Glitters

by KARA VANDERBIJL

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
784 pp

We expect a bad writer to produce drivel; we can lament that a good writer’s work is not appreciated in its time. But that Donna Tartt, an incredible writer, should produce three wearisome books in twenty years is an enigma that I have been trying to solve since I finished her latest, The Goldfinch, this week.

The Goldfinch revolves around Theo Decker, a young New Yorker who is visiting the Met with his mother when a bomb goes off. He leaves the museum without his mother (she dies), Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting “The Goldfinch” under his arm (he stole it from underneath a pile of rubble). Theo moves from home (that of the wealthy Barbours, the family of one of his schoolmates) to home (that of his alcoholic father in Las Vegas); the story touches on his guilt, exhilaration and the self-destruction that occurs where the two intersect.  As Theo works feverishly to protect his secret and maintain the painting he idolizes, he crumbles under the influence of drugs, alcohol and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like her previous works (The Secret History, 1992, and The Little Friend, 2002), Tartt’s newest monolith is extremely lengthy, and is at turns bildungsroman, thriller, and exposé on beauty. In fact, if you replace murder with heist, The Goldfinch is essentially the same book as The Secret History. Both feature an unlikeable, half-privileged half-tragic male protagonist and a cast of supporting characters who are somewhat more likeable, yet more likely to be bad influences. Both will thrill you at first. In fact, you’ll be tempted to include them in your “Top 5 Novels I Love” list. But then you get to the halfway mark, and it all begins to unravel.

If we’re picking someone to blame, her editor seems like the most likely candidate. You can allow a certain degree of extravagance, Donna Tartt being Donna Tartt (the characters in her first novel murdered someone during a bacchanalian rite, after all). But after she reaches the climax of the story, she’s not really sure what to do with herself anymore. During the last 100 pages of The Goldfinch, Theo monologues about art, beauty and life, like Tartt threw her personal notes into her manuscript and called it a resolution.

A reader will forgive a slow beginning if she can trust the writer to give her more and more reasons to believe that the book will dazzle her. But Tartt has consistently done the opposite: she carries her readers to the top of a mountain, then watches them slip and slide their way down the other side.   

Tartt’s biggest strength lies where action meets self-reflection; this is where she creates her most powerful scenes. However, when she leans too heavily either on plot or on a character’s introspection, she loses steam. For this reason, some parts of The Goldfinch feel false, like they were merely conveniences to move along the plot (really, Theo just happens to stop by Kitsey’s apartment and just happens to find out she’s cheating on him?), and other parts drone on and on, the vibrant thread of action getting lost in details about furniture restoration and personal histories which, while fascinating, do little to carry the reader through to the end.

It’s a shame because Tartt’s talent demands that we trust her. Her voice is that of a master. She paints an opulent picture of New York City, she seasons even the slowest moments with delightful details, like rain “peppering the windows”; the smoky fragrance of lapsang souchong tea; Theo’s many physical ills as he drifts in and out of drug dependence. She has a knack for drama, for creating believable characters and relationships. She has a sense of humor. She can get you to turn pages like there’s no tomorrow. Now, if she could just finish well... I’d follow her up another mountain and down the other side.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about four things. She twitters here and tumbls here.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am just emerging from Tartt's Goldfinch and am already in mourning for her characters. This is a masterful piece of work however I do agree the lovable Boris' lengthy discourses at the very end could have been tightened up. Yes, editor's fault! I am already looking forward to re-reading and discovering her other novels.
January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIsabelle
This is a masterful piece of work however I do agree the lovable Boris' lengthy discourses at the very end could have been tightened up. Yes, editor's fault! I am already looking forward to re-reading and discovering her other novels.
February 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterIndia vs South Africa
Yes, editor's fault! I am already looking forward to re-reading and discovering her other novels.
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