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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 7…

Episode 7


Since I can’t possibly add any more to the heaving, tottering pile of books waiting to be read, there will be no TBR Thursday winner this week. So instead here’s a few of the books that I’m looking forward to reading over the next couple of months…

Courtesy of NetGalley:


the cave and the lightThis falls into the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ category, also known as the ‘what was I thinking?’ genre. However it’ll either be great or I will simply remind myself that suffering is good for the soul…apparently…

“Arthur Herman has now written the definitive sequel to his New York Times bestseller, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, and extends the themes of the book—which sold half a million copies worldwide—back to the ancient Greeks and forward to the age of the Internet. The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.”


identicalAlready out in the US, but not yet published in the UK. I’ve been a fan of Scott Turow from way back when, although he is variable. But when he’s good, he’s very, very good…

“The Gianis’s and the Kronons. Two families entangled in a long and complex history of love and deceit . . . Twenty five years ago, after a society picnic held by businessman and politician Zeus Kronon, Zeus’ headstrong daughter Dita was found murdered. Her boyfriend, Cass Gianis, confessed to the crime. Now Cass has been released from prison into the care of his twin, Mayoral candidate Paul Gianis, who is in the middle of a high profile political campaign. But Dita’s brother Hal is convinced there is information surrounding his sister’s death that remains buried – and he won’t rest until he’s discovered the truth. A gripping masterpiece of dark family rivalries, shadowy politics and hidden secrets, Identical is the stunning new thriller from bestselling author Scott Turow, writing at the height of his powers.”


smithAlthough this is nominally a children’s book, I first read it as a youngish adult and thought it was great. Now being republished as a ‘modern classic’ (gulp! am I really that old? – NB That’s a rhetorical question!) I’m interested to see whether it lives up to my memory of it…

“Twelve-year-old Smith is a denizen of the mean streets of eighteenth-century London, living hand to mouth by virtue of wit and pluck. One day he trails an old gentleman with a bulging pocket, deftly picks it, and as footsteps ring out from the alley by which he had planned to make his escape, finds himself in a tough spot. Taking refuge in a doorway, he sees two men emerge to murder the man who was his mark. They rifle the dead man’s pockets and finding them empty, depart in a rage. Smith, terrified, flees the scene of the crime. What has he stolen that is worth the life of a man?”




sycamore rowA new Grisham is always a must-read – never less than good (except when he does one of his dreadful sports books) and often great. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to read A Time to Kill in preparation – so two for the TBR…

“For almost a quarter of a century, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has captivated readers with its raw exploration of race, retribution, and justice. Now, its hero, Jake Brigance, returns to the courtroom in a dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history. Filled with the intrigue, suspense and plot twists that are the hallmarks of the world’s favourite storyteller, Sycamore Row is the thrilling story of the elusive search for justice in a small American town.”


the goldfinchLike many other people I loved The Secret History and was disappointed by The Little Friend, so intrigued to see whether this will be a return to form…

“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. “


entry islandAnd finally, following his triumphant Lewis Trilogy, Peter May moves on to pastures new. As someone who has followed May through his China thrillers, his French series and the Lewis books (not to mention his career as scriptwriter/producer on Scottish Television), I felt the Lewis books were his best work. How will the new series compare?

“When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.

Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.

The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.

Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professonal duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.”


All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?