This review of The Goldfinch has taken me a long time to start which is odd as when I finish a book – and particularly a fairly hefty one that I’ve invested such time and energy into – I’m fizzing with thoughts and reviews take shape pretty quickly. But not this one.
To set the scene a little, I’m a big fan of Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History and devoured it when it came out in the early 90s; it was beautifully written, disturbing and unlike anything that I’d read before. I recommended it to everybody, so much so that I was ridiculously excited when she published her second novel – The Little Friend – a decade later. And was then completely thrown when I hated it, took two attempts to get into the story – as I refused to give in, assuming that I was missing something as surely it would be as good as The Secret History – but then gave up before finishing it which is unheard of for me. I just found it gloomy, odd and that the narrative was beautiful but overdone. You know the person in your office that just likes to hear the sound of their own voice? I kind of felt that this was the literary equivalent and that I’d get stuck in tracts of stunningly crafted prose that were beautiful in isolation but didn’t go anywhere and served little purpose.
Anyhoo I digress, but it is kind of relevant as once again I found Ms Tartt’s third offering The Goldfinch an uneasy read and vacillated over the course of this lengthy tome between being utterly captivated by her meticulous detail – whether it be about a teenager hallucinating for the first time to the disorientating journey of a traumatised thirteen year old boy making his way out of a bomb site and the materials and techniques used in antique restoration – to having to put it down as I was unsure where the hell it was going and if I actually cared.
Not to give any spoilers if you haven’t already read it but The Goldfinch tells the tale of a teenage boy who is orphaned in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and who in the course of his escape from the ruins of the building, takes a very rare and valuable painting. And so begins his post traumatic stress fuelled descent into drug and alcohol abuse at the hands of an off kilter Russian in Vegas, a one sided love affair with a similarly damaged young woman who can never be his and into the underbelly of art crime as his life is tainted and overshadowed by the lie of harbouring the painting which eventually pushes him in to a fraught showdown against a beautiful backdrop of Amsterdam at Christmas time.
This is unlike anything that I’ve ever read which is largely a good thing I guess but my main problem is that – aside from the Hagrid esque Hobie – I just didn’t like or connect with any of the characters (including and in fact particularly Theo) and found the subject matter unsettling; pages and pages of boozy and stoned underage antics in Vegas after Theo’s initial awkward feelings of isolation and displacement in the snooty, privileged world on Park Avenue. Then his unrequited and long-distance yearning for Pippa followed by his almost asexual relationship with Kitsey that begged no comprehension; it’s a convenience seemingly on both sides but left me cold. His unravelling into dodgy art dealings peppered with his habitual drug abuse which lurks just under the surface made me feel uneasy and certainly not a fan. He is imminently unlikeable, continues to make poor choice after poor choice and after a dramatic and somewhat unbelievable violent altercation in Amsterdam, the book concludes by drifting into philosophical debate about love art and beauty. And as somebody who loves a good happy ending – and if I can’t get that a satisfying ending at least – I shut the book feeling miffed but relieved as at least it was done; walking away I can only really conclude that I kind of loved it but kind of hated it too which is a strange place to be!
Are you a fan of Donna Tartt and have you read The Goldfinch? What did you think?