The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
The Goldfinch is the long-awaited third novel from American writer Donna Tartt, published in October last year. Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, is one of my favourite novels, making the top five in my list of favourite books of all time, so I was really looking forward to reading her latest offering.
The plot of The Goldfinch centres around the life of Theo, a young boy of divorced parents growing up in New York. In a visit to a museum to view the painting of the title, Theo and his mother are the victims of a terrorist bombing. Theo survives, and secretly takes the painting with him when he leaves the museum. Throughout the novel we follow Theo as he grows up and we see how his post-traumatic stress disorder, his obsession with the painting, and the relationships he has affect his life and the choices he makes. Two of Theo's primary relationships after the museum bombing are with antique dealer and restorer Hobie, who trains Theo to become a partner in the business, and Pippa, also a victim of the bombing, with whom Theo predictably becomes obsessed with. We also follow Theo for a brief but influential time living with his father in Las Vegas, where he meets a Russian boy Boris, who becomes a central character in the lives of Theo and of The Goldfinch painting.
The Goldfinch has many similarities both to its predecessor The Secret History and to general American literary canon like The Catcher in the Rye in that the main character is a typical disaffected American middle-class white male youth. To Tartt's credit, she writes Theo well and does a good job of getting inside his mindset and writes the reticence of men well. Theo is a post-modern 'hero' at a loss in society, alienated, and searching for the meaning of life in the wake of the museum bombing and the loss of his mother. An argument could be made for Theo as a tragic hero, as we do feel a certain sympathy for him, certainly at the start of the novel due to the bombing. As the novel continues, though, we see Theo continue to make bad decision after bad decision, from his continual abuse of drugs to his art dealings on the black market, and we start to loose sympathy for him.
It's important to note the lack of women and the stereotypes they fall under when they do appear in Tartt's novels. The main characters of the novel are Theo, his best friend Boris, and Theo's boss/partner in antiques, Hobie. The women in the novel- namely Theo's love interests Pippa and Kitsey, are secondary characters, but as far as personality go they remain elusive. The men in the novel have distinct and different personalities, such as the quiet Hobie, nerdy Andy and reckless Boris. In contrast, the personalities of the women only exist in relation to how they impact the men in the novel. The women who do not serve as love interests are subject to the madonna / whore dichotomy; firstly in the character of Theo's mother, who is killed, martyr-like, retaining her madonna status in an appearance in Theo's dreams, and secondly in the wicked stepmother/whore figure in Theo's father's girlfriend in Vegas, Xandra, a bar worker with a drug addiction.
Tartt, like her British counterpart Ian McEwan, is a very literary writer- you could say a writer's writer- and peppers her novels with references to literary history. In The Secret History the references are predominantly Ancient Greek, whereas in The Goldfinch the references are based around the painting above- The Goldfinch by the Flemish artist Carel Fabritius, and the art of antique dealing, conservation and restoration- in short, our fascination and attachment to objects based on their perceived value. I love Tartt's writing style but one feature of her writing really stood out for me. Tartt has a tendency to end a sentence that isn't a question with a question mark. This really stood out as she uses very few other colloquialisms or dialect, with the exception of some questionable and narratively unrealistic Russian English. It could be argued that the use of the question mark illustrates the speech patterns of the character, however I found it failed to add anything to the narrative and was jarring to read. That minor fault aside, I found my main problem with the novel was that it has been badly edited. This is the fault of the publishers, rather than Tartt herself, but since Tartt's novels are few and far between (it's been eleven years since her last novel) I feel she is being treated with kid gloves somewhat. The last chapter was rambling, unfocussed and vague and added very little to the novel (and this is coming from a philosophy graduate). It should have been cut completely, and the novel should have ended with Hobies' speech to Theo on our individual attachment to art at the end of Section 5.2.
Overall I would really recommend the novel if you're a fan of literary fiction, the American Catcher in the Rye novel tradition, coming of age novels, or long novels in general. I love long novels and and literary writing, and that's usually enough for me to forgive sins of plot or character, both of which could be criticised here.