Life and art, fedora-wearing gangster, the ring of grime around an unwashed bathtub, parent-echoing behavior, getting the girl and the money, silent yearning, meeting your long, lost friend on the same day you win the lottery, art and life… Given this is a post regarding Donna Tartt’s 2013 The Goldfinch, one may assume that is a nutshell review. Banish the notion (at least the details); it is, in fact, mood setting.
The Goldfinch is the story of two phases in the life of Theodore Decker: one early teens, the other mid-twenties. An intelligent young man just going through puberty at the start of the novel, Theo lives in a small Manhattan apartment with his mother—his alcoholic father having walked out on the family a year prior. A kind, caring, cosmopolitan woman, Theo’s mother is the anchor of his life. But one day she is taken from him, and replaced by a painting of a goldfinch. (Nothing fantastical; read to learn the details). The rug of life pulled out from under Theo, his anchor is gone. Left floating between relatives and family friends in the ensuing turmoil, Theo is pushed toward a life that will test him physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and he may not survive, let alone keep the painting a secret.
If anything, The Goldfinch is a ripping good read. Anyone who has read only the first 200 or so pages (and its relatively excessive detail), would likely, strongly disagree. But once the plot wheels all start turning, particularly once Theo is forced outside of NYC, pace picks up and significant events (read: dramatic events) start happening with greater frequency. The climax of Theo’s journey exciting and emotional, Tartt keeps the pages turning—at least those beyond the initial setup, the ride as a whole intense, absorbing, and interest-filled.
But The Goldfinch, I think, would have itself be a Literary novel. The problem, as hinted, is that events start happening with lesser and lesser probability of likelihood, not to mention the majority of characters begin occupying increasingly stereotypical (detailed, but still stereotypical) roles, all of which means the novel’s literary intentions erode as its bestseller/popular fiction foundation establishes itself. Theo’s father, for example, exists in the gray area between caricature and human. The details of his lifestyle are realized in believable enough fashion, but his dialogue and behavior too often touch upon cliche. Another clear indication is the plot’s climax: classic, just classic—having cake and eating it too. I should be clear that this is only a criticism of the novel’s lack of chewy matter—of true complementary literary substance—than anything regarding how readable or enjoyable the story is. I had trouble to put the book down, just not for burning questions regarding the relationship of art and life, individuality and personal development. Despite elements that would seem to speak to the contrary, gestalt is not achieved.
Accordingly, The Goldfinch has two endings. The first is the end of Theo’s story; as mentioned, a rousing and emotionally dense series of scenes that force him into a turning point in life and keep the reader’s eyes glued to the page. Truly all well 'n good. But Tartt adds an additional fifteen or so pages of “thematic denouement” that serve to badly muddy the waters. Reading like a high schooler’s journal, it’s difficult to discern the message in the fifteen pages, let alone balance the content across the preceding events. It leaves an uncertain taste in the exact moment such a story should leave a salty, airy, sweet, bitter, or bittersweet taste. Thus, two endings: one which capitalizes magnificently on the plot threads and characters spun to that point, and the second which takes the wind out of any cohesive point or idea the novel may have been sailing toward. (That would be the nutshell review.)
I’m not sure if it is the closest relative, but my mind kept flashing back to W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage while reading The Goldfinch. Though Maugham’s protagonist was dealing with physical as well as psychological problems, the two young men’s stories nevertheless follow relatively similar arcs. (Their stories are likewise written in a relatively similar style, i.e. verbose with little left between the lines.) Tartt’s novel certainly stretches the boundaries of ‘realism’ more than Maughham’s, nonetheless I still feel that the messages of each are equally simple. Not inherently a bad thing, they have a pretentious quality to them that more compact and discreet bildungsromans like Hermann Hesse’s Demian or John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony show more than tell. (Going further, I would say Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, which possesses a sophistication and underlying intelligence that Tartt’s novel only occasionally flashes, remains the best bildungsroman of a young man growing up in NYC in turbulent circumstances. Read it, too.)
A mainstream novel wanting to be Literature, The Goldfinch spins an excellent yarn. Despite a slow start, Theo’s story unravels in highly entertaining, page-turning fashion. The final fifth of the novel can’t reveal itself fast enough. It’s the balance of the novel’s mainstream elements, however, that fail to match the philosophizing and commentary on the intersection of art and life. For example, character presentation (at times immature, and mostly good vs. bad), escalation of events (requires an ever escalating suspension of disbelief), and maudlin trite in the last few pages (better left to high school classrooms) doesn’t compare to the message one believes Tartt is aiming at. It’s clear there were aspirations for a chewy, profound statement on the nature of humanity and art which the dime store framework just can’t deliver. Thus read The Goldfinch for what it is: an imminently readable story.