The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Woe is me!

😦 😦

the goldfinchWhen Theo Decker and his mother are caught up in a random act of terrorism, Theo’s life is ripped apart. The mother he idolised is dead, his father had abandoned them a year or so earlier and Theo is left at the mercy of the social welfare system. Fortunately he is taken in by the rich parents of his school friend, until his father turns up to reclaim him. This is the story of Theo’s growth into adulthood and simultaneous descent into a drink and drug fuelled world of cold-hearted socialites and East European criminals.

There’s about enough plot in this book to make a decent short story, or possibly it could stretch to a novella. Unfortunately Tartt has decided to drag it out for 771 pages, filled primarily with unremarkable prose and repetitive descriptions of drink and drugs binges, vomiting and hangovers, occasionally interspersed with a bit of random and unlikely violence. Sadly, I got the image in my head fairly early on that Tartt had popped into the local word shop and bought a couple of the huge economy bags rather than going for the more expensive select boxes – fewer words but more highly polished. Having bought them, she then seemed determined to use them – again and again and again.

…it was like someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the dogwalkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.

The title of the book would lead an unwary reader to assume that the plot might have something to do with Fabritius’ picture of the Goldfinch – well, it starts there and ends there, but the five or six hundred extremely tedious pages in the middle have little to do with it. In fact, there’s very little about anything in the book other than Theo’s depressed and depressing descent into his cycle of self-destruction – and unfortunately written so pedestrianly that it failed to move this reader with any emotion other than irritation and boredom.

the goldfinch painting

Then there’s Boris, who becomes Theo’s friend in his teen years, introduces him to the wonders of drink and drugs and then…disappears for hundreds of pages, before suddenly re-appearing to help tie the thing up all nice and neatly; because that’s how life really works, isn’t it? Neat solutions and happy ever after – even if as in this case happiness consists of an acceptance of dull depression and hopelessness as the human condition. Tartt’s depiction of Boris is so badly done it’s almost (but unfortunately not quite) laughable. He goes beyond caricature to cartoon – think of every cliché you know about Eastern Europeans, add the old chestnut of the good-hearted villain and tack on a mock accent that’s about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney. I’d love to know why, though he lived in Australia and then the US from an early point of childhood, Boris never properly mastered the language.

Donna Tartt (
Donna Tartt

But then that’s not the only inconsistency. Given that Tartt spent ten years writing this, I’d have hoped she could have spared an hour or two to google some of her ‘facts’. For example, Theo apparently has an iPod in 1999 – amazing, since it didn’t go on the market till 2001. But his mother is even more amazing – apparently she was able to text when Theo was 10 – 1996, by my reckoning, at least 4 years before it began to be a real possibility for ordinary people. Theo worries about the ‘shoe bomber’ at least a year before that event actually happened – psychic as well as technologically advanced. And finally, would a young man in his early twenties in the US of around 2010 really say that his girlfriend looks like Carole Lombard? Who, for those of you who are too young to remember, was a film star who died in 1942. I googled these little factlets – what a shame Tartt didn’t. It might have meant the book, or at least Theo’s voice, would have had a little more authenticity.

“I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present.”

(Quote from two-thirds of the way through, and a great description of how I felt by that stage…and I hadn’t taken any drink or drugs at the time.)

But I could probably have overlooked these inconsistencies had the plot been more interesting, or the writing less prosaic, or the whole thing about 75% shorter. There are undoubtedly some good passages here, and occasionally the writing rises to a high standard, but these positives are completely swamped by the sheer weight of nothingness that fills most of the book. Since Ms Tartt is not afraid to deal in clichés, my advice to her – less is more. I’ve seen this book compared to Dickens – while Tartt has undoubtedly tried to take some elements of Great Expectations and work them into her plot, I find the comparison not just facile but vaguely insulting. As you’ll have gathered, this one emphatically does not get my recommendation.

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62 thoughts on “The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. I was already considering not bothering with this book, you have confirmed my doubts (It did get mixed views so for while I was prepared to read this, it sits on the table as I type). Thanks for your honest review. You deserve vast amounts of chocolate for finishing this book. 🙂

    • In all fairness, I have to say loads of people seem to think it’s wonderful – not me, though! Much, much chocolate was consumed in the process of reading it…and cake!! 😉

  2. Nice review, FictionFan. Sorry to know that you didn’t like Donna Tartt’s latest book. I was excited when I got to know that her new book will be published this year and I recently ordered it. It looks like many readers are raving about it and it even found a spot in the NYT’s best fiction books of the year. But after reading your review, I realize that reviewers might have gone with past reputation than with present performance. I especially found it sad that Tartt’s depiction of Boris is so sadly done and he looks like a cartoon character with every East European cliché imaginable. That is really sad. I don’t know what to do with my copy of the book when it arrives. Maybe I will give it a chance for around 50 pages. If I feel exactly the same way you do, I will probably put it aside. Maybe writing one novel in 10 years is not a good idea. It probably makes one rusty. I still can’t believe it – there were readers saying that Tartt’s prose is so great in this book. It is sad that it is not.

    • Thanks, Vishy! Views about the book seem to be divided – lots of people seem to feel like me about it, but others are loving it, so definitely worth trying it when it arrives. In fact, it starts off very well – it’s from about page 150 that it slides downhill. If she’d abbreviated the 500 pages in the middle and just given us the start and the end it would have been a much better book – though still not great, I think. If you do decide to read it, I’ll be interested to read your review.

  3. I’ve just skim read this as I’m about two thirds of the way through it and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m reading an ebook version I would have worn out my red pencil long ago. I heard Tartt talking on the radio yesterday and saying how important detail is and how she takes so long to write a novel because she has to work in such detail. Someone needs to help her to learn that while she may need to know a great deal about her characters it is her job to prune what she tells her reader. In this case, drastically.

    • Indeed! It was the repetitiveness and sense of going nowhere for so long that did for me in the end. It’s a shame, because she undoubtedly has the talent to write well, if only she could restrian herself from going on and on and on…

  4. FictionFan – So let me guess – you weren’t too keen on the book? ;-). In all seriousness I was wavering on this one, but no, I think not. I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to ask me to witness a character’s self-destruction, at least have the decency to give me a good plot and some solid writing. Sorry you were disappointed.

    • Haha! How did you know? 😉

      That’s my view exactly. In real life, I’d have sympathised with Theo’s self-destruction given that it was as a result of such a traumatic event – in fiction, though, that’s not enough. Something has to happen – endless descriptions of drinking binges are about as much fun as being surrounded by drunks in real life…

  5. Can’t say I’m surprised – I haven’t been impressed (or managed to finish) anything of hers, so I’ll be giving this one a miss.

    • I enjoyed The Secret History, but I was much younger then – I’d be too scared now to re-read it in case I thought it was as meaningless as this one. Certainly if you didn’t like that one, I can’t imagine you’d be able to bear this one…

  6. Just to throw cats amongst Goldfinches – I’m one of the ones who am STILL raving about this one (in terms of deep enjoyment) despite reading it as soon as it became available – and it has nothing to do with the authors reputation, as i did not like her second at all – so to answer Vishy, my response to this book isn’t anything to do with rep – it just hit the spot for me – I guess if you want to spit at the excerpts FF highlighted, pass on by and do not read, but if those excerpts hit a spot – go for it – perhaps read some of the reviews which are gripped by what my good friend FF dislikes!

    Its a wonderful illustration of how very subjective the reading experience is – I was underlining passages I found beautiful, amazing, precise, illuminating over and over. Possibly for extreme fans of nineteenth century Russian authors if you wonder whether its for you.

    For me, its length was immersive and I was deliberately slowing down my reading in order to stay with it for longer – too absorbed to even think about chocolate!

    • I did actually pick those excerpts as examples of the good writing in the book. I thought of picking some quotes about vomiting, or showing off Boris’ cartoon accent but I thought I’d try to be fair. These were about the most meaningful and well written sentences in the book, as far as I’m concerned. Did you know she uses the word ‘sick’ 97 times, and vomit another 14 or so? By my reckoning, without the use of a calculator, that means Theo threw up (or thought about doing so) on average more than once every ten pages, even if you allow for the fact that sometimes he was ‘heartsick’ or even ‘seasick’ rather than just sick-sick. 😉

      My reading was also slowing down as I went along, but for entirely different reasons!

      But, more seriously, I agree that reading is subjective and am glad you enjoyed it. I didn’t really feel it compared to the few Russsians I’ve read either, to be honest – in length, certainly, but not in depth or in insight into either the human condition or social commentary. And I genuinely did think Boris was like something out of sixties cop show – the post-war Hollywood version of an Eastern European villain with a heart of gold….

      • Yebbut how many times did she use the word the (I know you’ll know the answer due to some sort of amazing Kindle Fire stats thing

        I think we part company whenever the misty thing rears its head – I’m thinking of the Ozeki. went to see a friend on Saturday and we had a brief lets run away from the rest of em and talk books – new on her shelf (without recourse to me) was Ozeki, which she also loved. I’ve said ‘Go, Goldfinch’ to her, as I’m pretty sure she will do submersion.

        Having had a houseful of Eastern Europeans today I was disappointed they were all glum, and not entertaining at all. We didn’t get as far as mysticism but they did take away all the kitchen cupboards.

        Todays were the ‘destroy the kitchen’ EEs and the plumber EE. Tomorrow I get the electrician EEs. There are plasterers, tilers, decorators and carpenters to come. I’m holding out for the carpenter to be the jolliest (connecting mystically with the bit of tree)

        • It’s odd but I never really think of Eastern Europeans as particularly mystical – in danger of generalising like Tartt here, but they always seem to me rather down-to-earth types…

          ‘The’ doesn’t appear quite as often as it should, since she drops it regualrly to show us how foreign Boris is – but only about half the time obviously, because otherwise she might be accused of being consistent! 😛

          Urghh! You have my sympathy! never mind, it’ll be great once it’s finished.

          • Oh oh oh – you can’t have spent much time with Slavs being mystical. My background and history is littered with mystical Slavonics – and i can spot them at paces – even at second generation. I feel my inner mystic roars out and is roared back at particularly in Russian writing.

            I really should have offered the kitchen guys some vodka………..(perhaps not, its important to keep them down to earth whilst they do the tiling)

            Maybe I should play some Gorecki,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Symphony of sorrowful songs has singing in it, and I’ve got a CD of Georgian male voiced choirs ….I could do a little musical promenade and observe when who starts crying (though they probably all listen to One Direction or something)

        • PS And I didn’t find this book mystical at all. What was it about it that you felt was mystical? My impression was that it was just a guy who suffered from a phenomenal and unlikely amount of bereavement in his early days getting drunk and drugged and being generally spineless. Oh, and dishonest (and I’m not talking about the picture there).

          • He was fairly permanently looking for meaning, and The picture itself represented that – as Tartt made clear in his acceptance of it all at the end. That was where his journey had seemed to be going all the way through – especially re the various conversations about brothers Karamazov. He moves from nihilism and despair to an acceptance and art, all the way through, is looked at as something which can give epiphany and meaning

            • Yes, I see what you mean. I think it’s that we perhaps define ‘mystical’ slightly differently – to me it means a search for something beyond human concerns – God…or gods, or at least spiritual. And I didn’t find that in this – he seemed very earth-bound and human-centric to me. And his love for the painting seemed to be as much about possession as art…

              No, I fear we’re never going to agree on this one. (Poor Jilanne!) Never mind, maybe Flanery will produce a new one soon! 😉

    • Lady Fancifull, your comment made me smile 🙂 And it also made me think. I love 19th century Russian writers (and not just 19th century – I love 20th century Russian writers too. Even 21st century Russian writers). So maybe I will wait for Donna Tartt’s book to arrive before deciding what to do. I think reading the first 50 pages and then taking stock seems to be the preferred plan now. Glad to know that you liked ‘The Goldfinch’ very much. It was nice to hear your thoughts on it.

    • Thank you! I swithered with one smiley, but it’s marginally better written than that…

      Good to see you back. Just as well I didn’t pay any attention when you promised you’d let me know in advance if you were going to disappear so I wouldn’t worry…otherwise I might have been WORRIED!!!!

  7. Boohoo, that doesn’t make my case any easier…
    I loved the Secret History, hated the Little Friend, so what will this book be? I think i’ll pass, and perhaps re-read the Secret History instead 🙂

    • Well, I also loved The Secret History and hated The Little Friend…but then so did Lady Fancifull (see her comments above) and she loved this one. Hmm…probably not helping you here! 😉

  8. Great and as always a honest review. I am planning on reading this at some point. I personally believe this will be on the long list of the 2014 Bailey`s Women`s Prize for Fiction.

    • Thanks, Chris! I fear you’re right about the Bailey’s. Worryingly, I fear it might even be shortlisted for the Booker now they’re allowing Americans in. Funny, I didn’t think I was very bothered about that till I read this one – now I hate the idea of some other Commonwealth author being bumped off the list to make way for this one…

      Anyway, if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it – plenty of people seem to be loving it. All very subjective, in the end.

      • Good point about the Booker and I think you’re right about Tartt’s book being nominated for that as well. I am waiting to see if it does appear on the Baileys’ prize longlist as I am planning to read and review the longlist once it is announced around march.

        • I always say I’ll do that with the Booker, but I never do. This year I’m still working my way through last year’s shortlist – I might be finished it by the time this year’s is announced! Still, I think this’ll be the first year I’ve even managed that, and so far most of the books have been well worth reading.

  9. Love your review and all the debates in the comments as well. Of course it just makes me want to read it and make up my own mind about it, but not sure I can commit so much time…

    • Thanks, MarinaSofia. I think the fact that Lady Fancifull and I so rarely agree on a book leads to some interesting discussions… 😉

      I know what you mean – controversy around a book always makes me want to read it, but I found this one a real drag to get through.

  10. This is the best one yet of your less than complimentary reviews! I love the economy bags from the word shop, phrase!! to follow this up with the cutting -“psychic as well as technologically advanced.” with the evidence to back it up made me laugh so much my stomach hurts. I wasn’t going to read this anyway but I think your review was far more worthwhile than the 10 years spent on the book! I’m bookmarking this page for those times when a quick pick-me-up is needed. Thank you!

    • Haha! Glad you enjoyed it! I think I’ll have to specialise in really bad books – everyone seems to prefer my rips! I must say I feel as if it took me nearly as long to read this one as it took Tartt to write it…

        • Thanks, Cleo! A lovely compliment! It’s true that the reviews I find hardest and the books I forget soonest are the ones in the middle – I almost think I’d rather read a bad book than a mediocre one. Almost… 😉

    • Thanks for commenting! Sometimes even if you don’t enjoy a book you can understand what other people see in it, but I must admit with this one I’m pretty baffled by all the glowing praise it’s been getting.

  11. I loved this book, although I do think it could have been shorter. I was really worried about reading it, as I adored The Secret History and then sort of liked the second book, but felt confused by the ending…. Possibly that was just me though 🙂 However, I think this was the best she has written. I can see, though, how readers could just get bogged down with it if it doesn’t grab them immediately, but if readers haven’t tried it yet, then I would urge them to give it a try.

    • Hi, Susan. Yes, I’d always encourage people to try a book for themselves when it’s getting as many positive reviews as this one. Though as you’ll have gathered I thought this one was really pretty pointless and soooo overlong. I loved The Secret History too – and kind of wish Tartt had stopped there, as neither of the other books has come close to that one, for me.

    • Best of luck! 😉 It does seem to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books though, and more people seem to love it, so hopefully you will, too. I’ll look out for your review – I’m still trying to figure out what I missed!

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