The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartWhew.  At 771 pages, it took me awhile to finish this book, and once I was done, I got sucked into the world of reviews and the big debate among critics as to whether or not this book is “literary.” It won a Pulitzer Prize.  It has sold a million and a half copies.  It received rave reviews in The New York Times and New York Times book Review.  But alas, not so in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, both of which called it “adolescent, far-fetched, and overwrought.” Because I read so many reviews and blogs and articles, here’s a quick book summary  from an article in Vanity Fair: the book iscentered on 13-year-old Theo Decker, whose world is violently turned upside down when, on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother, among other bystanders. At the behest of a dying old man, he makes off with a painting—the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch. For the next 14 years and 700 pages, the painting becomes both his burden and the only connection to his lost mother, while he’s flung from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, encountering an array of eccentric characters, from the hard-living but soulful Russian teenager Boris to the cultured and kindly furniture restorer Hobie, who becomes a stand-in father, to the mysterious, waif-like Pippa, plus assorted lowlifes, con men, Park Avenue recluses, and dissolute preppies.” (

At first I was mesmerized by the writing, especially the scenes depicting Theo’s relationship with his mom, the grief ripping him apart.  Every reminder he encountered—a restaurant, a park bench, a women’s outfit—might send him spinning into his pre-bomb world.  But other parts of the  story got too long: getting out of the museum (18 pages between the bomb going off and Theo finding the exit); the Las Vegas section (entertaining at first, but ultimately too depressing and too detailed); definitely the ending in Amsterdam (I lost track of which thug worked for whom and how they all related to the art/drug trade).  By the last 130 pages I was skimming and didn’t much care, I just wanted to see how it ended  (it took an abrupt turn from mob scene to philosophical discussion of art).

I loved some of the characters so much, I hated to part with them.  Andy, nerdy and brilliant was my favorite.  Hobie, patient and wise, was the calming presence we all want in our lives. Ukrainian Boris is hilarious, although I tired of him after a while.  Theo in the first half was endearing, but later, I tired of him too. Still, Tartt’s power of description is often breathtaking (as are her literary references: it feels like she’s read everything on the shelves of the New York Public Library) .  I found myself over and over wondering how she could capture a character or scene with such detail and then do it again a page later.  Near the beginning of the book when Theo is first staying with the Barbours, we get Theo’s impression of Mrs. Barbour: “so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood.  She was the masterpiece of composure…a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room” (79). When I read descriptions like that I’m overwhelmed by the power of words.  It would take me 2 weeks to write a sentence like that (okay, I could never write a sentence like that), so how does one write 700+ pages filled with such description? I guess that might explain why the book took more than 10 years to write.  This book is an investment, and though some parts get a little carried away, the writing is worth taking time on almost every page.  (fiction)


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