Best to get the nasty stuff out of the way early: the first and most glaring issue with this book is that it could have been utterly fantastic if it were 30,000 - 50,000 words shorter. I’m not exaggerating.
Long books are fine; I’m fond of a number of literary tomes. Books that take their time to develop and unfold can be wonderful. But in the case of The Goldfinch, there are passages that needlessly go on for far too long once the reader has already gotten the picture (heh heh). One particular exchange of dialogue towards the end of the book is drawn out so long in an (ineffective) effort to build tension that it literally had me cursing out loud to just get on with the reveal already. Other sections were flamboyantly self-indulgent, and while they were well written, they were also wholly necessary and trying too hard to come across as reverential. There were some particular similes used that were so eye-rollingly corny and out of place that an editor with any sense would have promptly zapped them out of the text.
Now, all of that sounds rather harsh for a book that I actually think it is a triumph and one that I ultimately enjoyed quite a lot. This book is wonderful, it just could have benefited from some hearty editing, and it took about 150 pages to get interesting.
As to the author’s strengths, there is no question that Donna Tartt’s prose is capable of being uncannily eloquent at times. She writes these swirling, dreamy passages so full of heart and carefully detailed familiarity that one tends to be carried away on her words and forget that they are reading altogether. Also, her ability to write dialogue is impeccable; to say that her characters speak like real, living, breathing souls doesn’t aptly describe it. Her descriptions are lush with details and are such that she must be drawing from a deep well of personal experience, so diverse are the areas of life the novel touches upon.
The Goldfinch has a curious flow about it, since the plot goes through a series of patterns that circle back around on each other, blooming and changing each time they recur like a massive kaleidoscope of events. And while the book only spans a period of somewhere around eighteen years and the narrator is still a young man by the end, there is this inherent sense of a great deal of time passing, as if the reader is watching someone’s life unfold from beginning to end with all the vivid, minute characteristics of everyday life. Believe it or not, that isn’t another jab to the length of the book—I’m saying it’s one of the novel’s strengths.
Boris, the main character’s unpredictable but endlessly loyal best friend, has earned a place in my favorite characters of literature. He was hilarious with an exuberant personality, a lover of life, not entirely safe and yet dumbfoundingly lucky. He enters the story roughly one-third of the way in, and it was at this point that I thought the book really came into its own. Boris contributed substantially to my sticking with the novel.
The main character himself, Theodore Decker, begins as a less than confident young man for whom the reader quickly feels some degree of sympathy because of the unavoidable tragedy that befalls him. The simplest way to describe the situation in which he finds himself in is crude: it just… absolutely sucks, and you can’t help but feel troubled for him. As the novel unfolds, the reader observes as Theo grows and becomes a man, changing all the while, though in many ways not for the better.
There is a great deal of alcohol and substance use (and abuse) throughout the book, though I found this to be more interesting than tragic; the odd, wide-eyed fascination of watching someone else continue to harm themselves and make poor decisions with horrific consequences. The drugs and booze are certainly presented in a negative, destructive light.
The Goldfinch concludes with a lengthy, larger-than-life speech from the narrator that attempts to somehow sum up the varied and complicated events that took place before it, though it rang a bit heavy-handed to my ears. As a writer, I can relate to the desire to want to give your readers some epic, all-encompassing, cosmic monologue that takes into account space, time, God, love, life, death, and every created thing (which is what I felt this speech was trying to do), but it did not quite work for me for two reasons: 1. the book was strong enough already without it, and 2. this book really cannot be summed up in a few pages. That said, I suppose I do not have any real room to criticize because I have no damn idea how a novel of this scope and length could have been ended in any way that would be perceived as “just right.”
The Goldfinch is a one of those reads that only comes around every decade or so. Unfortunately, it is also the sort of novel that attracts the booky-snobs, but who pays attention to them anyway? This book is lovely and powerful, but it is also an undertaking. Read it if you’re okay with stories being slow and taking their time. Read it if you’re okay with your main characters drinking a lot of alcohol and doing a lot of coke and heroin. Read it if you enjoy Russian culture. Read it if you’re really into art or antique furniture. And read it if you’re a writer; you’ll come out the other end with your mind expanded and a few new tricks in your bag.