Confession: I find that writing a traditional review of this remarkable book is beyond my abilities, so I’m just presenting my reactions to it as a reader and writer. Nevertheless, there may be some spoilers in here.
If reading fiction is an escape from reality, I’m having trouble big-time with re-entry. It’s been over a week since I finished The Goldfinch, yet the book is still one of the first things I think of in the morning and that I return to several times during the day. Somewhere around page two- or three hundred I took up residence in the rich and crowded world created by Donna Tartt, and I’ve yet to move out. (“…with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost…” —from The Goldfinch.)
The Goldfinch however, is no escape: it thrusts us into a merciless awareness that the only way out of our troubled lives is death, a truth most of us tend to avoid. When forced to face it, our reactions can range from depression to anger to thoughts of suicide (as in might as well get it over with). I don’t know if this was Tartt’s intention, but it was, at least for me, the novel’s ultimate point. Not that she doesn’t offer glimmers of joy and hope along the way, particularly in her long summary-like ending: it’s just that the dark side overpowers the light.
A plot-driven novel, The Goldfinch is full of twists and turns and moments of nearly unbearable suspense. Unlike most plot-driven books, however (see John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, et al), in which the action is fueled by stereotypical cardboard characters, The Goldfinch is populated by realistic, multi-layered and fully developed human beings: Theo, the narrator around whom all others spin; Boris, his chief sidekick who’s dragged all over the world by his abusive businessman father; Pippa, the girl Theo falls in love with just minutes before a bomb goes off in the New York Metropolitan Museum, setting the plot in motion; Hobie, who is kinder to Theo than anyone since his mother died in the explosion; and a cast of hundreds more. I can still vividly picture every one of these characters, though Tartt, thankfully, allows readers to fill in most of our own visuals—which is odd, considering she’s so heavy on other kinds of descriptions.
As both a reader and writer I’ve never been that interested in description, whether of city streets or country roads, lavish mansions or run-down hovels. Thus, Tartt’s long, detailed word paintings of whatever’s going on while what’s really going on goes on, annoyed the hell out of me—that is, for the first hundred pages or so, until I surrendered. Even when her descriptions are relevant, the plot is so engaging that I impatiently scanned the page (or rather Kindle screen), my nerves twitching with Come on, get to the story already! For instance, just as Boris is about to tell Theo (and us) what’s become of the treasured painting at the center of the plot, Tartt deviates from the conversation to let us know what’s playing on the barroom television! She also employs that famous plot device, or rather plot-avoidance device, the flashback: right after the explosion, Theo is crawling through a collapsed passageway seeking an exit, when Tartt flashes back to a time in his life when he was stuck in another small space. Sometimes she even writes flashbacks within a flashback!
At such times I became distracted and annoyed, reading as quickly as possible to get past these…but then a funny thing happened on my way back to “the story”: I began to notice that my impatience was similar to what happens when I’m reading suspenseful passages. Tartt’s long flights of description and flashback left me literally suspended. I wanted to know what would happen next: I had to turn the page. Are these devices, then—descriptions, flashbacks—purposeful techniques employed in order to create suspense? Are they what make the story so compelling? Perhaps. No, more than perhaps: probably. It’s worth noting that The Goldfinch is only Donna Tartt’s third published novel, and that she spent eleven years writing it. At a time when authors attend workshops on “How to Write A Bestseller in a Weekend” and toss off a book every six months, Tartt is holding down the fort of literary excellence.