Thursday, 17 October 2013

Disjointed thoughts on Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt The Goldfinch (22 October 2013) by Donna Tartt

First line: While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.

A few months ago, a very generous and lovely Goodreads friend (Karen) gave me the opportunity to read Donna Tartt's much-anticipated new novel, The Goldfinch. I read it as soon as my copy arrived, in mid-August. Then I sat down to write a review and couldn't think of what to say. I told myself there was no rush - after all, as the ARC wasn't strictly mine, I wasn't sure about the rules regarding writing about it online, and I guessed I probably shouldn't publish a review until nearer its official release date. Now, however, the publication date is almost upon us - it's released in the UK on the 22nd of October - and I still haven't written anything. This is such a hard book to write about, and as such, the following paragraphs are more a collection of thoughts than a structured review.

It is very difficult, in fact virtually impossible, for me to talk about my thoughts on The Goldfinch without referring to my feelings about The Secret History. As far as books are concerned, The Secret History is the love of my life. I fell for it when I was still an impressionable reader: I was starting to get into literary fiction, but hadn't read enough to have an established canon of very-favourites. In the intervening years, I have read much, much more, and I recognise that The Secret History cannot truly be said to be the best book ever in a technical sense, but it is still the one I love the most. I feel angry and defensive when people criticise it; I urge everyone I know to read it; I am forever searching for similar stories (I even have a shelf dedicated to them on Goodreads) in the hope that they will inspire and excite me even half as much. These days, even when I find books I really love, I feel that they are less special partly because I read so much. The Secret History came into my life at a time when reading for pleasure wasn't so much of an integral part of my identity, and I put it on a pedestal, where it has remained ever since: the perfect, untouchable novel, the one amazing hit I'll spent a lifetime trying to recreate.

Anyway, back to The Goldfinch, it is a story about the life of a boy called Theo Decker. I say boy because although the book spans Theo's progression from child to adult, he is a somewhat immature character, and never really seems to grow up. Not that he doesn't have any justification for being emotionally stunted: he is only thirteen years old when his beloved mother is killed in a freak accident, when an art gallery, of all things, is bombed. Theo blames himself - the two of them were only visiting the gallery because he had been excluded from school, where they were later due to attend a meeting with his principal. After a period living with a friend's family and then some time spent in Las Vegas with his formerly estranged father, he returns to the city and seeks out an art dealer who also has connections with the accident. Throughout all of this, though, Theo has been keeping a secret: he took a painting from the gallery in the aftermath of the blast, a valuable miniature of a goldfinch. Despite feeling guilty and paranoid about his illegitimate ownership of the artwork, he is unable to part with it, feeling it is the only remaining connection he has to his mother's life. It is the goldfinch painting which will draw him into the dark underworld of art forgery, and will ultimately bring about his downfall.

There's not a lot more I can say about the plot of this novel, partly because it's a sprawling epic and I don't want to spoil how it develops for anyone else, partly because I didn't actually find it all that memorable. That sounds like a criticism and is one of the reasons I found it so hard to write up my thoughts on The Goldfinch: I didn't actually like Theo very much and that made it quite difficult to care about the various predicaments he found himself in. What I loved about the book was its scope, its detail and its realism. It is a more fully realised, mature and well-written work than The Secret History - it grows, evolves and constantly re-shapes itself rather than sticking to a small group of characters or a neat series of events. Tartt's prose is near-perfect and the narrative is full of small, magical details and descriptions. The result is a book I loved for the details rather than the whole. I can't honestly say I was particularly bothered about the main story arc involving the painting and the possibility of Theo being ruined - I was more concerned with the development of Theo's character, the introduction and lasting impact of his high school best friend Boris, the smallest incidental scenes and passing moments, the language Tartt chose to use, the quality and authenticity of the world of The Goldfinch.

(NB: I'm not going to spoil anything particularly important but, if you are fanatical about avoiding any spoilers at all, you might not want to read the following paragraph.)

If I was truly disappointed in anything about this book, it was the relationships. I found the whole idea of Theo being in love with Pippa a bit hackneyed and predictable - I never bought it, although at least Tartt did highlight, within Theo's own narrative, the idea that he'd 'imprinted' on Pippa and his feelings for her were tied up with his love for his mother, guilt over her death, etc. I also felt there were some issues around the way Theo constantly described Pippa as plain and unattractive, as if to highlight how very REAL his feelings for her must be since she wasn't anything to look at. Maybe this was deliberate - maybe he was trying to convince himself rather than Tartt trying to convince the reader - but I'd have been more likely to believe in this dubious 'love' if she had been stereotypically beautiful. For me, this book was so much more about the love story that was Theo and Boris's friendship, and some part of me was so disappointed that this thread wasn't developed further, and in a different way. My favourite scene in The Goldfinch, the part that moved me the most, was the end of part xix of Chapter 6: I think a lot of people will instantly know what I mean and will wholeheartedly agree once they've read it. For my part, I was by this point very much in love with Boris myself, and couldn't help feeling that his character was too memorable and scene-stealing for the rest of the book's own good.

Despite my love for The Secret History, I've never got round to reading Tartt's second novel The Little Friend, so this is just a guess, but I feel certain The Goldfinch has a lot more in common with the latter than the former. If you adore The Secret History as I do (and I know a lot of people do), you're going to have to accept that this new book can't be expected to recreate its unique magic, but it is powerful and incredibly impressive in its own right. It is the sort of book you should read slowly, savour, and then flick through and re-read in dribs and drabs for years afterwards. While it won't be sitting alongside its cult-classic predecessor on my personal list of all-time favourite books, it is technically better than The Secret History and most of the books I've rated five stars this year. I can't wait to hear what the rest of the world (and my fellow Secret History obsessives) think of The Goldfinch, and it's a treat that's worth the lengthy wait.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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