The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I have this thing with writers sometimes. If I love a book, I’m hesitant to read anything else by the same author in case it isn’t as good. I’m doing it with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the moment: I’ve only read Americanah and I loved it so much that I’m scared to read anything else of hers in case I love it less. I know it’s ridiculous and that her books are some of the most critically acclaimed of the last decade, but I can’t help it.

Donna Tartt was another example of this habit. I adored The Secret History when I read it a couple of years ago, I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, The Goldfinch ended up reminding me why I’m hesitant about reading multiple works from the same author.

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It’s not a bad book. I’m starting with that, it is a genuinely good book. But it’s a three star book where The Secret History is a five star book. For a start, it’s too bloody long. I had set a pretty impressive pace with reading at the start of the year, so I thought I would go for something that I could really get into the world of, something chunky. That may have been my first mistake: I’m realising that I don’t actually like long books. A couple of years ago, I remember Ian McEwan giving an interview in which he talked about how few novels earn their length. At the time, I felt like he was being dismissive, but I begin to agree more and more. If a book is nine hundred pages long, the ending needs to warrant that. In the case of The Goldfinch, it doesn’t. Not to ruin it, but the ending is absolutely nothing.

It’s kind of pitched as a study of grief combined with a crime novel, but the thing is that I didn’t really give a shit about the crime part, i.e. the last third of the book. The intense grieving for his mother was wonderfully done, but the art theft part was actually considerably more boring to me.

I realise now that I haven’t summarised the plot at all. It’s about Theo Decker, a boy who survives a bomb which kills his mother, and in the confusion after the explosion, somewhat accidentally steals a valuable painting. In the years which follow, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy school friend, then goes to live with his father in Las Vegas, and eventually returns to New York.

The pace of the book frustrated me. The Vegas section went on for an absolute age, but once he returns to New York we suddenly skip about eight years into the future. There is reference made to a serious prescription medication addiction, but none of that is shown, although there would seem to be considerably more plot in those eight years, during which he is taking all of these drugs, becoming an antiques dealer and beginning to commit fraud, than there is in the year and a half he spends getting shitfaced in the suburbs of Las Vegas, which is just two or three hundred pages of repetition.

There were parts I loved: the first third is great, and the second New York section, before he becomes involved in the “criminal underworld”. But a lot of it deals in tropes, and is a little clumsy as a result. Notably, the character of Boris, the Eastern European criminal mastermind, is about the least original representation of a Russian I’ve ever read. On top of that, when he is introduced we are told that he speaks perfect English, and yet his speech is continually written in a caricature of a Russian speaking English which never improves, despite his spending more than a decade in America.

I didn’t hate it, although I know it sounds like I did, but I also struggled with it enough that I won’t be bothering with The Little Friend.


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