Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

I received a copy of The Goldfinch from my lovely parents-in-law for my birthday last November, but both my husband and a sweet friend of mine borrowed it before I got around to reading it. That's really only part of my excuse for leaving it for so long before I picked it up myself, though. It was one of those books so hampered by great expectations (it was receiving rave reviews, and I'd read and loved Tartt's first novel, The Secret History) that I feared to pick it up lest it let me down. It didn't help when Sam's assessment was that it lost momentum halfway through--this brought my expectations down to a more realistic level, but didn't make me any more eager to read it.

Happily, when I recently overcame my fear enough to read it, I was not disappointed in the least. Far from losing momentum halfway through, somehow I was relentlessly propelled through the entire thing. Even during the times when (as Sam said) "nothing happened," I was suffused with an expectant tension. It certainly wasn't a thriller like Gone Girl, but there was a constant sense of needing to know what was going to happen next, even if I knew I was only waiting for one character to say something to another. And it's both satisfying and sad to have reached the end of the book--pleasantly fulfilling, yet I wish I was still in the midst of reading it.

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, thirteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the major influences in his life (as Theo is the sort of person who finds himself influenced much more often than he exerts influence on others): his mother, her death, various friends, and art. I was going to say something about the way one great and terrible day changes the trajectory of his life, but then I realized that's not really true: his direction doesn't really change. It's more as if that day speeds him along his way. Theo is deeply flawed, and as I watched him grow into an adult, I found I couldn't muster much respect for him--I was, instead, disappointed in who he was becoming. The reader is privy to all his failings which are hidden from those closest to him and only guessed at by others.

Despite Theo's disreputable choices, I was unwilling to give up on him. Not only did he have some interesting thoughts on good and bad and whether one can come from the other, but my interest was principally due to the golden thread running through his story: the title of the book refers to a painting (one which really exists! but which has probably had a much less eventful history than it receives at the hands of Tartt) and the visceral connection Theo feels with it. It was gratifying to read about Theo's reaction to the painting, because I understand how it feels to love--and own--a work of art.

The Goldfinch seems to be a really polarizing book: it has sold more than a million copies and won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among other awards), and has amazed and entranced many readers, but it seems to have as many harsh critics as it has champions--so many that I don't believe all of them can be explained away by literary jealousy. The Goldfinch has received scathing pans from some very important sources, as well as from many of its readers with smaller spheres of influence.

This makes me want to examine my reaction to the book more closely. Am I just another one of the sheeple, appreciating the book due to its success? If its critics are correct and it's crap, what does that say about my literary tastes? If it's really so poorly written and full of cliché, why didn't I notice? And is the idea of literature as entertainment really a problem? I'm sure I'm glibly misinterpreting the viewpoint, but a book shouldn't have to be boring to be serious or important or great. I don't think the definition of a great book can be boiled down to one word, but I do think the majority--if not the entirety--of great books could be described as thought-provoking and well-written. And I see no reason why a book can't be entertaining as well as thought-provoking and well-written--in fact, so much the better if it is. If that makes me hopelessly inelegant in the eyes of world-renowned book reviewers, well then, so be it. I can only imagine how much more fully I am enjoying my life than someone who eschews literary entertainment.  


Ti said...

I read it for book club and they all had a lot to say about it. One, it's similarities to all of the books by Dickens. I think many critics felt there was too much that was similar. If you pick it apart, the similarities are quite obvious.

Also, the size of it. Many felt the story could have been told in fewer pages. In an interview, she said that it took many pages for her to get around to the meat of the story... I swear, those last few pages were like spun gold to me but she claims that it took her all that time to get them out. And to think, that several hundred pages HAD been edited out.

I felt a bit rushed to get through the book as I left it to the very last minute and my meeting was looming but man, I sure loved it in the end.

Kate said...

I really liked this book. I agree with your whole last paragraph. I was so annoyed when "critics" blasted this book. It's possible for something to make you think while entertaining you at the same time! Well said!

Vintage Reading said...

I agree with what you say about not liking the character Theo becomes. I loved many parts of this novel but thought it degenerated into a bit of a crime caper towards the end. The writing about art galleries and Amsterdam was beautiful, though.

Kathy said...

I think you're right, Nicola--it did seem like a bit of a crime caper in Amsterdam.

Thanks, Kate! I have to remind myself that snobby book critics are entitled to their opinions too . . . :)

It's too bad you ended up having to rush your way through it, Ti, but I'm glad you loved it!