Review: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, but that I couldn’t decide what my impression of the book was, so I was holding off on reviewing it.

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It’s been almost a month, and I still have been struggling to review the book.  Why?  It just didn’t make an impression on me.

In fact, the synopsis on Goodreads probably has more to say about this book than I do:

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

Sigh.  Yet another book I’m giving three out of five stars.

First of all, what I liked: Donna Tartt’s writing itself is excellent.  Her structure, Theo’s voice in the story, it all comes together.  Her characters are vivid and present.  She also wrote what is probably one of my favorite lines in literature:

“Well — I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you.  For me: that line is often false.  The two are never disconnected.  One can’t exist without the other.  As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.” (P. 703, spoke by Boris)

This statement is, strangely enough, also emblematic of something that bothers me about this novel: Boris, a supporting character, has to articulate a thought that is one of the linchpins holding this novel together.  The narrator never comes to conclusions by himself, and is rather just the receiver of bad news, good news, lessons in morality, and reflection upon his own character.  Though we see The Goldfinch through Theo’s eyes, and see other characters vividly thanks to him, his story is lost without the help of those supporting roles.

Overall, there isn’t anything I specifically did.not.like. about this book.  Rather, I think it just washed over me and left me dissatisfied.  I couldn’t relate to Theo after the first third of the book, and I spent the rest of the story despising him.  His Goldfinch is interesting, but, in my opinion, is just a note that ties his story together, not that dictates it (until the very end of the book).  There are a lot of interesting issues here that aren’t touched on fully — namely terrorism and PTSD, and that was irritating.

More than anything else?  This book, like The Road, was written for English classes across America to pick apart and analyze.  While that’s perfectly fine, that doesn’t necessarily make this the best choice for a casual reader.  In this case, as in countless others, the full impression of Tartt’s narrative is derived from picking apart symbols, deconstructing the story, making broadly uninformed psych0logical assessments, and trying to tie a biocritical angle into all of it.

At the end of it, what do I have to say?  Meh.  Next book, please.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

  1. Thanks for this review! I’ve been wondering why this book got so much praise when it seemed so blah. I now know, after reading your synopsis and opinion on it, I’ll probably pass it over for something more up my alley.

    • I’m glad you appreciated it! The book is well-written, but that does not necessarily make a good story. I know what I like, and unfortunately, this just isn’t it.

      That said, if you have any good recommendation, please feel free to let me know! I’m always on the hunt for new books 🙂

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