Briefly: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

  It seems a bit perverse to write a short post about a book as long as The Goldfinch. But even if I weren’t still on vacation, I don’t think I would want to write a long one, because despite the book’s length I find I have little to say about it — or maybe that’s because of its length, which really wore me down.

I know, I know: I read long books for a living! And it seems as if hardly a reviewer missed the chance to call The Goldfinch “Dickensian.” The thing about Dickens, though, is that he’s The Inimitable, and Tartt is … hmmm. Well, I don’t have much to go on, but based on The Goldfinch I’d say Tartt is a competent contemporary novelist with big ambitions who really needed a more assertive editor.

Yes, I held the length of The Goldfinch against it. Not at first: I enjoyed the feeling of tipping over into a big immersive novel, and the story-telling, at first, was very good. Things started to drag in Las Vegas, though, and really they dragged for the rest of the book. I found myself strongly tempted to skim — a temptation I did not always resist — because I didn’t find the writing very interesting, or Theo, and Boris thoroughly annoyed me, and both Pippa and Kitsey were cliches in their own ways. I zipped through the “climactic” section in Amsterdam paying only enough attention to find out what happened, and that’s not the worst: the worst is that I barely cared.

And then I got to the very last section, in which Theo philosophizes about art and life and the meaning of it all — and it seemed so unearned, by him and by the novel. Where was that perspective — where were any of those deeper questions — for the rest of the novel? In itself, it was an interesting meditation on beauty and despair and what lasts and what we value and why. I can imagine finding it deeply satisfying as a way to end a novel about those things. Up to that point, though, I just hadn’t found The Goldfinch to be that book.

No doubt ingenious readers can explain how in fact that’s somehow the point, or how if you just look at the earlier parts the right way, they turn out to be profoundly illuminating about something besides drug-addled idiocy and vomiting. I could probably spin a story like that myself about the novel if I put my mind to it! It’s festooned with praise and prizes: I’m quite prepared to be persuaded that it’s better than I thought. I’m certainly not going to read it again to double-check, though, and I’m always going to be happy to reread David Copperfield.That’s my test of what’s really “Dickensian”!