Book Review–The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Picture of the original painting from Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Picture of the original painting from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

A Pulitzer Prize winning novel deserves attention and discussion, no matter what the perceived quality, mostly because a winning novel is a subjective choice by a small jury who has a certain amount of influence in affecting modern literary taste and sensibility. So here goes my brief dissection of  The Goldfinch.

This is my first read of Donna Tartt. My wife recommended the book after hearing raves about it from my sister and a friend. She struggled with it, lamenting almost daily about its slow pace and monotonous tone. But she urged me to read it to see where I, as her resident “literary expert,” stood on the evaluative spectrum.

I also struggled with the pace of the book. The first part opened well, engrossed me, and kept my attention. By the time Theo had moved to Las Vegas with his father and father’s girlfriend, I had trouble caring. Theo Decker is a flawed protagonist, bordering on annoyingly so. My hope later in the story was that he be arrested and sent to prison because I didn’t see many redemptive qualities in him. I can accept a flawed protagonist who has at least one overarching good quality, or a protag who is struggling mightily to do the right thing. Theo was just as eager to lie to Hobie on the last pages as he was when he first met Hobie. One strike against the book.

The supporting characters were memorable to a point. Boris perhaps the best of them, although he was so irritatingly vague in his conversations with Theo that at times I just wanted to grab him by his fictional shoulders and yell,”Just tell it to me straight, in plain English!” Hobie was sympathetic and unique, and I’d hoped he would have pulled Theo completely out of the morass of his life by book’s end. The other characters were distinctive and memorable enough throughout the book, although none approached the status of classic supporting character. Overall positive.

I struggled most with the plot, because I read and write mostly genre fiction–suspense/thriller/mystery–where plot is either the most or second most important ingredient next to characters. The plot of  The Goldfinch starts off well and plausible; young Theo witnesses his mother die in a museum explosion and “inadvertently steals” (not sure how to best describe how he came to possess the painting). His life is thrown into chaos and it seems at first that the painting is something of an anchor that will steady him in the midst of the chaos. It turns out the painting is an anchor that drags him down to the depths of a suicidal drug addict and common criminal. If he had risen above the curse of the stolen painting, I would have bought into that plot twist and the ultimate story of Theo’s triumph over the loss of his mother and destruction of his happy childhood. Strike Two.

Ms. Tartt’s writing is excellent in many places. There are dozens of sections that are beautifully written, highly evocative, capturing people, places, and settings very well.  Definite positive.

But she tends toward over-describing mundane details and wasting the readers’ time on dialogue not pertinent to the story or development of  the characters. The Kindle version I read was 756 pages and I know the story would have moved at a better pace and held my interest more –with no loss of literary impact–if it had been trimmed by a third. Strike three.

I haven’t read most of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, but of those I have read, several jump out as stories I have remembered for decades and will certainly remember for the rest of my life. Titles I’ve read that I believe are worthy of their Pulitzers include: Gone With the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Old Man and the Sea, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Lonesome Dove, and The Road.

I was tempted to abandon reading The Goldfinch about halfway through, but being a true Neo-Renaissance Man, I figured a Pulitzer Prize winner should be read completely in the name of expanding my reading horizons and learning something about the world and/or myself in the process.

Have you read The Goldfinch? What did you think? Does it deserve its Pulitzer Prize?

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