Author: Donna Tartt
Finished on: 15 August 2015
Where did I get this book: Borrowed from a friend (yes, I know, still not getting through those shelves…)
This is an extraordinary book. The last 200 pages are fantastic; unputdownable. But wow, Donna Tartt doesn’t half write some dense prose.
Of this book’s 864 pages, I spent over 600 of them feeling unsure about whether I liked it or not. It seems unedited. Or like it was edited by someone apprehensive, who didn’t want to offend her by saying “Donna, there is some awesome stuff here, but we need to halve your word count”. She describes things endlessly. I counted four separate descriptions of the same character at different points in the narrative, all reading like their introduction into the story. It is good stuff, but there is way too much of it for my liking. Kill your darlings Tartt, kill your darlings.
The Goldfinch is the story of Theo, whose mother dies in a bomb attack on an art gallery when he is a teenager. In this defining moment in Theo’s life, he replaces his mother with a painting of a goldfinch that he steals from the gallery as he escapes from the blast debris. But The Goldfinch painting of the title is incidental to a lot of the plot. It spends much of the story hidden, and for long sections unmentioned. This is really the story of a young man destroyed by the death of his mother, and his long search to find the kind of belonging and happiness that he took for granted when he was with her.
The painting is a small, bright and beautiful thing that gives him great comfort despite being out of sight – maybe as a mother’s love is for the lucky ones among us, as we grow up and make our way in the world. Most of us carry it inside ourselves. Luckily I don’t have to wrap my mum in duct tape and lock her in a safety deposit box to keep that love safe. I don’t think she’d thank me for that. But because Theo is made so vulnerable by his mother’s death (the descriptions of his grief are heartbreaking), and in the absence of any other real security, there is a kind of transubstantiation from his mother’s love into the painting, and he goes to increasingly desperate lengths to keep it in his possession, and therefore by necessity hidden.
Tartt has an amazing gift for characterisation. These people are utterly real and believable. She brings out the nuanced, flawed, selfish and frustrating wonderfulness of real people. There isn’t a cliché in sight, and I could read her interactions between characters forever. I just wish you didn’t have to plough through so much description to get to them. My favourite character in this book of outstanding characters is Theo’s best friend: the mad, destructive Boris. He lights up every page he is on. Despite being damaged, untrustworthy and at times highly annoying, he is one of those characters that is an absolute joy to read. When he returned after a section of absence from the story, I actually cheered “Yay! Boris is back!” My husband, next to me in bed, said “Who’s Boris?” I don’t think I’ve ever felt more sorry for him and his non-reading ways.
I spent a lot of the book thinking about that Elmore Leonard advice on writing: “Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”. And I can’t help thinking a Donna Tartt book edited by Elmore Leonard would have been a truly brilliant thing. And half as long.
Recommended. But don’t feel bad about skipping the bits that readers tend to skip.