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Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch (2013)

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The Goldfinch was part of my Christmas reading binge, and so it’s “only” taken me about a month to get around to reviewing it. Blame the holidays and the ensuing laziness afterwards. I mentioned previously that I was really enjoying The Goldfinch and was keeping my best-of 2014 post in stock to wait and see if it’d make the cut. And it almost did!

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, this novel has received more than its fair share of both hype and hatred. Many people found it too long, and my edition does clock in at 864 pages. But that was what I wanted for my Christmas reading – some heft. I wanted something to get lost in, a story that would suck me in for days. The Goldfinch did this, I would say, to about 90%.

What happens is actually not that complicated: Theo, at age thirteen, survives a terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that kills his mother. He comes away from the chaos with a ring given to him by an elderly man just before dying in the rubble of the museum. Theo is supposed to give the ring to the man’s business partner and friend, James Hobart (Hobie). But Theo also comes away with a small but very valuable painting that the dying old man seems to have pointed at as he passes away. Theo initially means to hand in the picture, but he’s a traumatised child and something just always happens that makes him keep it. He’s strangely fascinated by the small masterpiece. And so the painting begins to determine the course of his life, an odyssey that takes him to live with the wealthy parents of one of his school friends at first, then with his alcoholic and gambling addict father and his new girlfriend, and later again in New York with Hobie, whom he locates after the blast at the museum to give him the dying old man’s ring. The painting, of course, is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, painted in 1654).

If you’re now wondering how Donna Tartt can spend 864 pages on this relatively straightforward story – well, she spends a lot of time on detail. Her intricate descriptions of the places Theo stays at are so vivid it makes you feel like you’re there. My favourite parts of the whole book were the descriptions of Hobie’s antiques workshop and apartment in the same building, and how Hobie carries out his restorations of antique furniture:

After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and lustre of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents […] spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tan and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood.

I could smell those woods myself as I was reading, feel the comforting warmth of the workshop and Hobie’s calm, quiet passion for his work. Similarly detailed descriptions of less pleasant places also exist though, and I really enjoyed the contrast and how Tartt’s mastery of language made everything become real. She also spends a lot of time on dialogue, so the characters come to life in a similar way.

But if the language was so enticing, why did the book only pull me in 90% rather than the complete sinking-into-the-story I’d hoped for? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the aforementioned loads of hype and hatred. I think I may have been over-analysing The Goldfinch. All the time I kept checking myself, wondering if I should feel bored yet by all the details, if I should let myself be so enticed by the language or whether this was masking a fundamental flaw in the novel. I have to say that my answer, after pondering, was always “no”, that the book was fine and I kept on reading. But there was a mental fishing line that kept pulling me out of The Goldfinch and of which I’m still not sure whether it was my or the book’s “fault”.

Also, reflecting on it, I notice that there was a lack of truly pro-active female characters in The Goldfinch. Theo’s mother is sort of idealised as an artsy, warm and nurturing personality, his father’s new girlfriend is annoying and touching at the same time, he’s infatuated with his friend Pippa, who’s fragile and just as traumatised as he is (she was with Hobie’s partner at the museum the day of the blast). It would be unfair to call them stock characters because they do have strong personalities and come to life. But all the plot-driving action is taken by men: Theo himself, of course, his father, Hobie, his friend Boris. For all the amount of time Donna Tartt spends on description, it’s still astonishing to find that women are mostly on the receiving end, while the characters who make the decisive moves in the novel are men.

Other than that, this hefty novel is worth diving into. I enjoyed myself, though not as thoroughly as I’d planned.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

9 thoughts on “Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch (2013)

  1. Nice review, Bettina. Glad to know that you liked Donna Tartt’s book though you couldn’t like it 100%. I got it sometime back but haven’t read it yet. Its size intimidates me. I also feel that the book was overhyped, because Donna Tartt was coming out with a new book after many years. I find that with some writers (for example Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides), they get a lot of critical acclaim when they come out with a new book, because they write a new book only once in a decade or so, and it is an event. But I loved your review, and what you said about the beautiful descriptions in the book. It makes me read the book soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • So true about hypes, Vishy! This was a beautiful book, and even though I kept checking it didn’t feel that long. I know it looks intimidating but it’s actually really not bad. My inner monologue was something like this: “130 pages in and not that much has happened… should I be bored yet? -No, actually, this is fine, I’m quite enjoying myself”. So do give it a shot!

  2. If only it wasn’t so long. I would certainly pick it up. You still made it sound appealing although it didn’t suck you in completely. I guess it’s a tad too long. Overstaying its welcome, sort of.

    • It actually didn’t feel too long though and I didn’t feel like it overstayed its welcome! It’s a weird thing that happened with the way I couldn’t quite sink into it, as I described above in reply to Vishy. I kept second-guessing my own enjoyment of the book, wondering if I should be finding some fault with it or be bothered by the amount of detail and length… which I wasn’t. This has never happened to me before and it was very strange.

  3. oh yes! agree with the lack of women, but I saw myself in theo in many many angles, except for the las vegas phase, well -ish.
    i read this book at the same time as my mom. we went on endless conversations about it. it was my favorite read of 2014, and in a longtime. the audiobook (approx 20CDs, is also fascinating, the narrator is just SO talented, pott-ahr…)

    • Glad you loved it 🙂 and that audiobook does sound great. Yes, Theo is a character you can identify with, or which is very plausible at least. I even got the phase he went through in Vegas. Although I didn’t identify with his choices then, they seemed plausible and credible.

  4. The thing that kept me from loving it more than 90% was the overarching theme of hopelessness. I’m a great fan of Donna Tartt, having read The Secret History at least three times. Probably four, I love it so much. But the ending of The Goldfinch was just so darn hopeless, not a thread of it anywhere. That made me so sad. Even Pandora found hope at the bottom of her box.

    One of the parts I loved? Listening to the new to me composer which Tartt mentioned throughout this novel: Arvo Part. I still listen to the albums I downloaded as a result of her “introducing” me to him. Beautiful.

    • To be honest, the hopelessness didn’t really bother me for some reason; I’m not even sure why because it usually does bother me when a book is really bleak. I think it was offset by the beauty of the language. Somehow this made the hopelessness more bearable for me.

      I need to check out Arvo Part. And read The Secret History. Thanks for the recommendations!

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