Tartt is as accomplished as ever but The Goldfinch fails to soar
It is obligatory that every review of Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, must mention the sparse nature of her literary output. So, patient reader, let me run over those facts for you again. Tartt’s reputation as one of America’s most respected writers is built on just three published novels, The Secret History, The Little Friend and now The Goldfinch. The Secret History was a sensation when it was published in 1992, but it was another decade before her sophomore effort appeared in October 2002. Now we can finally get our hands on a copy of The Goldfinch, the inevitable question is, was it worth the wait? As super prolific writer Stephen King commented in a recent interview, “God help you Donna, this better be interesting.”
And, for the most part, The Goldfinch is interesting. It is also, however, far too long. After reading the novel, I felt like I had lived the main protagonist Theo Decker’s life with him, and not necessarily in a good way. As Theo’s mother dies in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the beginning of the novel when he is just thirteen, and from here on in his luck just gets worse, it is a pretty dark path we must tread with him.
In the aftermath of the explosion, a disorientated Theo takes a priceless work of art with him when he escapes. The painting is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and his theft of it will have irrevocable consequences for Theo and the people he encounters. Theo must now cart the painting around with him and hide it everywhere he goes, its presence a heavy and insistent reminder of that terrible day. I couldn’t help but empathise with poor Theo as I lugged the other Goldfinch around with me, a heavy weight in my bag which demanded to be read.
Thankfully, the Goldfinch is a pacy read, with a tight, enjoyable plot. Tartt’s gift for storytelling, which was demonstrated so wonderfully in her debut, is definitely still on display here. However, The Goldfinch lacks the pure classiness of The Secret History; its taut prose, vivid characterisation and delicious air of intrigue. While with The Secret History we were led slowly and seductively into a horror show, here the trauma is messily slapped on again and again.
After the death of his mother, Theo ends up in Las Vegas, where he is introduced to drugs and alcohol by the novels most compelling character, Boris. While almost everything about Boris is absurd (when we encounter him he is described as having a strong Australian accent with Russian undertones) he is a wonderful creation, a jolly nihilist with the risk taking and terrifying behaviour of a person who has nothing to lose. When Theo meets him he makes him feel alive again, and he breathes life into this book in almost every page he features.
Aside from Boris, most of the characters fail to come alive, a criticism which has been made in a number of other reviews. For such an obviously intelligent writer, some of the characters feel ridiculously clichéd and two dimensional. There is a rich jock bully in the shape of the character Platt Barbour, Theo’s saviour is a kindly antiques shop owner called Hobey and capricious Kitsey has more than a little Daisy Buchanan about her. The Goldfinch has received many comparisons to Dickens and it has been suggested that the tepid love interest Pippa has been named in homage to Pip from Great Expectations. I hope isn’t the case as it would, quite frankly, be a slightly silly thing to do.
While both her debut and this novel are set in the present day, it is much more overt in The Goldfinch. Unfortunately, the age of Smartphones and Facebook does not become Tartt, or indeed Theo. Fresh from waxing lyrical on his beloved Goldfinch, he will remark crassly on somebody’s ‘tits’, making for a narrative voice which lacks credibility. Theo made me yearn for The Secret History’s wonderful Henry Winter, a gifted Greek scholar so detached from the modern world that he wasn’t aware that a man had walked on the moon.
In keeping with the times, our anti-hero Theo is a thoroughly modern drug addict, popping a myriad of pills with names like Perocet and Vicodin, and of course the so-called ‘hillbilly heroin’, OxyContin. He never buys proper heroin, only takes a bump when offered, as there “would never be a reason to stop”. To deal with his emotional anguish, Theo ends up with a pretty expensive drug habit on his hands, which will lead to his entanglement with some very shady characters. Tartt is brilliant in depicting a barely functioning doper, and the dismal effects of self medicating. With his ‘every-other-day habit’ Theo floats through his own life like a ghost, numbing his pain yet watching the years slip by.
There is something in Theo’s dulled senses which echo the novel’s failure to truly emotionally engage. Theo is a boy who has lost his mother and is alone in the world and as such his plight should affect the reader enormously but there is something lacking in those passages which make them fail to have the effect they should. In fiction as in life, less is more and familiarity breeds contempt. As the 770 odd pages describe to us in detail every last one of Theo’s thoughts and conversations, the reader loses patience and the emotional impact is lost. While in some respects this is an accomplished and impressive novel, Tartt’s writing, like the bird depicted in the Faubritius painting, fails to break free and soar.