I very, very rarely review a book without finishing it. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is going to be one of those exceptions. There are two reasons for this exception: it’s really long and I simply don’t want to spend that much more time finishing it. And I have found so many people out there (including many critics) having the same experience as me, that I believe I would end up where they did, with the same opinions that they have. (I’ve read around 3/4s of it, as of last night.) We’re going to go with that, at least for now (because I haven’t completely given up on the book, but I have set it aside indefinitely).
This book is so controversial. I thought that it was controversial because how could a book for the commoners have won a Pulitzer? Wasn’t that the buzz a few years ago? Well, I’m cool with that, so I thought I might actually enjoy this hefty discussion-maker. Ehn. Turns out there is a more lasting controversy about this book, and it is: is it any good? Pick your side, and it’s likely to be middling but staunch.
The set-up: Average thirteen-year-old New-Yorker with single mom who he absolutely adores. They go to a museum on their way to a parent-teacher conference on the day it is bombed by terrorists. Mom dies. Son starts a life of being un-anchored. The twist is that as the overwhelmed and disoriented kid claws his way out of the wreckage, he does a dying stranger a solid and steals a priceless painting from the museum. This is where all the tension, all the plot essentially, comes from for (I believe) the rest of the book and through at least two major “sections” of the book. (I refer here not to the formal sections, but to the disparate halves that people complain about, and why so many people drop off in the middle of their reading.) We follow Theo for fourteen years (during his supposed “growth”) as he lands in a couple different homes, gets hooked on drugs, and slips further and further into a dark, criminal tunnel of basically his own making.
Unbelievable. I’m not saying that in the cute, slang way. No. This story was just—for me and many others—unbelievable. From the first scenes, it was ludicrous but in the framing of realism, which makes it uncompelling. And there are other reasons the story is uncompelling (as in I’m-perfectly-happy-with-setting-this-down-right-now), which have to do with the unlikability of the characters (yes, I said it again) and the lack of conventional pacing or conflict. Sometimes, reading this, I actually thought, I am bored. And then maybe Tartt would write something brilliant and I would be like, Okay, I’ll keep going. There’s bound to be more brilliance around the corner. There was also more boredom.
And for me, it came down to this: I also found myself sighing occasionally as I paused to think, Why on earth did she choose THIS story? To spend eleven years (!) on your magnum opus and to choose a story that probably could have been told in a short story and that wouldn’t even interest most readers? Super weird. (Note: it actually worked for her.) Page after page after page, I was just like I don’t care! I didn’t care about Theo or his friends (with the exception of two characters), I didn’t care about what was happening because I am not super in to art dealing and antiques, life in New York City, drug addiction, or mediocre people, and ultimately, I didn’t care if a criminal gets his just desserts. Not that I believed the whole thing would have developed that far to begin with. Each new step in the plot was like, “What?!? Nah. Don’t buy it,” but I had to keep following Tartt there.
And for a bildungsroman, (fancy word for coming-of-age story and a neat way to make yourself sound more European), the main character is remarkably static. The definition of a bildungsroman is that the protagonist grows. There might be some giant leap at the end of this book, but I haven’t heard about it. All I know is that 3/4 s of the way into the book, Theo has gotten progressively worse, has continually repressed the light of his idols and decision-made himself into a giant (unbelievable) pit of (boring) problems. He started out snooty, self-centered, and isolating, and that hasn’t improved him. I sort of hate him.
I don’t hate this book. I think it has its moments. And if it were like a quarter of the size, it might have kept a whole lot more people’s attention and made more sense (on many levels). I am, however, putting it down. And once again, I am asking myself if I read the wrong book by the right author, or just the wrong author. I’d like to think, the former.