So today I finally finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart (2013). Almost a year ago I saw it advertised in Waterstones with the tagline ‘Dickens with guns’. I figured it was a novel I should probably read, and probably one that I should enjoy. It has taken me an age both to start it and then to finish it. I should say (both in defence of my slow reading, and in warning for the review about to come) that I unwisely chose to listen to The Goldfinch on audiobook rather than read it in print. On reflection, this was perhaps a mistake. A thirty-two hour long mistake.
The premise is this: thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker and his mother get caught up in a terrorist attack on an art gallery in New York. In the chaos that ensues he ends up stealing a small and beautiful painting – ‘The Goldfinch’. The novel then follows some fifteen years of his life from this moment on, as the possession of this painting and his misery at the loss of his mother pulls his life in strange directions.
I almost love this novel. At so many points in The Goldfinch I got so close to loving it, only to be stopped short. There are some brilliant moments, some wonderful characters, some scenes that really did have me on the edge of my seat – but these snapshots of excellence get lost in the slow pace of this huge book. Don’t get me wrong, I love long novels. Dickens is my favourite author of all time; of course I like long books. And I’m aware that listening to the audiobook might make a book seem longer, but I’ve listened to a fair few long novels before, and never found the pace to feel particularly different, not to the extent that the experience of the book is ever damaged by it. But The Goldfinch as a book is simply too long for the story it tells.
For one thing, the majority of Dickens’s novels have a massive cast of characters that they switch between, a great wealth of plots and interweaving subplots to keep us interested. The Goldfinch only really has the one plot, and it’s hard to sustain that many words on this one story. I’ll admit that there’s something beautiful and dedicated about the way that Donna Tart pauses and dwells on every little tiny minute detail – but it’s simply too much. This book is overflowing with details, and thus they become rambling and over-the-top. It doesn’t feel precise; it feels laboured. And so at various intervals I found myself getting bored, both of Theo and his story.
The very structure of the novel – beginning in Amsterdam only to soon leave it, never (so it seems for chapter upon chapter upon chapter) to return – it makes the whole novel feel like a tangent. And within this tangent, we get others. The whole section in Vegas feels tangential to me, and even though it is significant to the plot, it nonetheless shouldn’t feel like it isn’t. There are the smaller tangents too: moments when Theo’s mind drifts into long rants about his love for Pippa, so much so that by the time his thoughts move back to the present we have entirely forgotten where he’s walking and what he’s doing in the now. I really struggled with these tangential departures from the story. I had a similar problem with the frequent flashbacks to unfamiliar moments from periods of time in Theo’s life that we, as readers, had witnessed. For example, when he’s an adult, Theo frequently reflects on his teenage years with Boris, but often remembers moments that the reader was never told about before, though we were given a wealth of detail about his time in Las Vegas. To me it would have been so much more effective if these memories alluded to moments we’d witnessed, instead of seeming like details stuck in the wrong place.
The language Tart uses throughout the novel is unfailingly beautiful, but even if you can say something ten times and find a way to say it beautifully and uniquely each time, it still doesn’t mean that you should tell us it ten times. For me, the pacing of the book is just too slow. There are also a few plot points I wasn’t quite convinced by, and I think I would have been more able to suspend my disbelief if the story had been moving faster. I genuinely would and could have loved this book so much – if only someone had cut it down to half its size.
There were some moments that truly gripped me. I really like the start of the novel, and while the middle for me sagged, I got much more engaged from about three-quarters of the way through. The ending is intensely dramatic and at times very cleverly and excitingly written. I did find the penultimate two chapters a little overwrought, unnecessarily (and unrealistically) philosophical, but the final chapter itself I loved. It’s a poignant and thoughtful ending to the book.
Some of the characters are marvellous. I love the Barbers, especially Andy. Kitsey is believable and Pippa is well drawn, even though we at times only see her in glimpses. Everett feels a little like an (inaccurate) American stereotype of Englishness, but perhaps that’s simply a reflection of how Theo views him. I find Theo himself often frustrating, but there are moments, especially at the beginning and the end of the novel, when I did warm to him. Theo’s parents are great characters. His father especially is compelling and complex in so many fascinating ways. My favourite character is without a doubt Hobie, and I like that while at times he seems almost like a Dickensian figure – delightful, lovable, eccentric and not all quite there – he becomes more human and more complex in the latter parts of the book.
To me, The Goldfinch has everything in it to be a brilliant novel – but it has too much of it, too many details, too many scenes, too many reflections and words, and not quite enough plot to carry this mass of language. I love details in novels, but here it is just too much, and it becomes overwhelming and at times dull. Details are so much more poignant, more powerful, when left the space to speak. I think if The Goldfinch had been cut ruthlessly, or written with more economy, or at a faster pace, it could have been a far greater novel.
Greatest strength: Donna Tart is obviously a very skilled writer, able to conjure up great images and characters, even if I feel she’s gone a bit overboard here.
Greatest weakness: The pacing: this novel is just simply too long for the story that is tells.
Let’s finish on a quote: You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.
Next week: The Buried Giant, by Kazou Ishiguro