The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch

This is not the kind of book you can review without destroying the reading experience of others coming after you, so I’m not going to review it, as such. I’m sure everyone knows by now that this book is about a hitherto rather obscure painting of a goldfinch by the 17th century artist Carel Fabritius, in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. The basic premise is that this painting is in an exhibition at the Met that Theo Decker’s mother takes him to see one morning when he is thirteen. While they are at the museum, there is a huge explosion caused by a terrorist bomb, and while Theo survives, his mother dies. During the immediate aftermath of the bomb, Theo regains consciousness and manages to crawl across to a dying old man who gives him his signet ring and tells him where to take it. He also tells him to steal The Goldfinch, which he does. Theo then escapes the museum undetected, and the rest of the novel charts Theo’s life from that day into his late twenties, from which perspective Theo narrates the events of the novel. I initially thought it was going to be about Theo discovering some sort of mystery connected with the painting, but there is no real mystery here at all. To say much more would ruin how pleasurable it is to have the story and characters evolve beneath your eyes, in so many unexpected directions.

What I will say is that this is a fantastic, fantastic novel, creating a world so realistic that I was utterly absorbed within it. I felt I knew the characters, who are so convincingly portrayed that I could hear them and see them as I read. I wanted to know everything about them, and became desperately concerned about their fates. The settings were places I felt I had visited, so well does Tartt realise them on the page. I have seen some reviews that complain The Goldfinch is bloated, self indulgent and needs editing, but I couldn’t disagree more. The length of the novel allows it the time and space to weave its spell of realism on the reader. Yes, a few scenes could have been cut slightly shorter, and there are events that are probably not entirely necessary, but if they weren’t there, then the depth of the characters and the understanding the reader gains of them would be compromised. This is a character driven novel, and the length reflects the excess of experiences the young narrator lives through in a relatively short period of time. I wouldn’t have missed a page; each one was a pleasure to read, and each character a masterpiece of portraiture.

I read a similarly long novel earlier this year entitled The Luminaries, which won the Booker Prize and triggered a considerable amount of debate. It was very clever and it was very well written, but it had no heart that I could find. It was a mask of the kind the literary establishment seems to praise of late; something of style but no substance, something that makes the reader marvel at the skill without taking away anything to treasure in their heart. I was worried that The Goldfinch would be of a similar vein, but it was an utter joy to find that it was not. Tartt is a phenomenally intelligent writer with the ability to manipulate the language she uses in order to create characters that are utterly individualised. Her purpose when writing is not merely to impress, but to write a story that captures the heart and the imagination, whisking readers away into another world. In the act of doing so, she also manages to write something that is complex and profound, something that challenges and questions, while simultaneously being easy and pleasurable to read. Accessible literary fiction is hard to find; it is rare to come across people reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel on a beach, but this is just that sort of novel; one that appeals to many, and is accessible to all. This is the kind of writing that deserves plaudits; this is the kind of writing I compare novels such as The Luminaries to, and rightly therefore find them lacking. Donna Tartt has no rival I can think of; The Goldfinch is perfection, and everyone should read it.

ps. I have started a facebook page for the blog so that I can give updates on what I’m reading in between blog post – you can sign up by clicking on this link!

51 comments

  1. I have been hoarding The Goldfinch for some time, awaiting the perfect time to read it, and found it with upcoming holiday. I’m going to take it with me – what better for a long flight?

    The accessibility of The Goldfinch to every type of reader is what has struck me most. My friend, a regular reader but not one who tends towards hefty literature, text me recently to say that she was reading “The Goldfinch by that writer” and didn’t want to put it down.

    I did cherish The Luminaries; to me, it was very Dickensian and I was caught up in the setting and the mystery. I look forward to seeing how The Goldfinch compares and how the heart that you describe makes it even more endearing.

    I’ve liked you on Facebook🙂

    Enjoy Streetcar on Friday! I adored it.

    1. It’s amazing how many people are reading it! The Goldfinch is perfect for a flight – you’ll get so lost in it that you won’t notice the time at all. I wish I had enjoyed The Luminaries more, but it just did nothing for me. I’m glad other people found it worth while though! Thanks – can’t wait! I have heard so many good things!

  2. So glad to read your piece on The Goldfinch! I read it, and did not feel strongly about it until the final fifty or so pages. After I read that, I immediately started reading the book again. I would call it Dickenensian, and also somewhat Salinger-esque. The book has wonderful character development, and sense of place. I have never been to Las Vegas, and don’t know that I ever will, Tartt has given such a sense of that place. I have been to New York, and her sense of that city seemed spot on to me. After reading the book twice this spring, I am now listening to the audiobook. The story carries well on audio, but the reader does not do well with voicing female characters. I own an advanced reader copy of The Goldfinch, and anticipate reading it again sometime!

    I loved the length of the book, it was a book I could just live in. I have relished other novels of this size (A Suitable Boy, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) but The Goldfinch stands above those others.

    1. I can see the comparisons to Salinger and Dickens in the style – Tartt is a wonderful creator of a whole debauched environment as well as brilliant as the voice of a teenager. I normally avoid very long books, but this is one I would definitely read again and again. A masterpiece!

  3. Thanks for this review, based upon which I shall definitely give this book a go! I loved The Secret History but have shied away from Tartt’s later novels thinking they would be a disappointment. Here’s hoping I was wrong.

    1. Oh this is definitely not a disappointment, Blighty! I have heard that The Little Friend wasn’t up to much so I’ve not read that yet, but The Goldfinch is certainly on a par with The Secret History.

  4. I am debating whether to read this or not. Your review makes it sound very interesting, but I am not sure about Donna Tartt – I believe The Secret History was rather violent, and I hate violence, fear, etc, in novels. Could you let me know if this does contain anything of that sort? Thanks.

    1. Hi Michelle Ann – it is a fabulous book but there is a fair amount of violence and fear in it – not sustained throughout, but there are significant episodes you might not like.

  5. I followed my read of The Goldfinch with The Luminaries and quit midway through the latter for the exact reason you gave. There was just no way to follow up Tartt’s beautiful work with Catton’s, regardless of her skill.

  6. I am in the middle of reading The Goldfinch at the moment and am trying to slow down my reading because I don’t want the book to be finished. At the same time I want to keep reading to find out what happens to the characters. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a long time. I read The Luminaries and found it very ho-hum, cleverly constructed but not a great read. Don’t know where I shall go next, possibly the new Sarah Waters, although I didn’t think much of her last two novels.

    1. I know, I was the same towards the end – I wanted to stay in that world so badly! Glad you agree with me on The Luminaries front. I am excited for the new Sarah Waters – I’ve heard good things and I loved The Little Stranger so my fingers are crossed that The Paying Guests will be as brilliant.

  7. Loved this review. You are so right about much literary fiction: the structure and writing may be perfect, but there’s often a hole in the heart. I loved The Goldfinch – and loved its generous length! – but I did not realize just how appealing it was to Every Reader until my sister (she of the famed quote,”Why are you reading Jane Eyre? Ugh, that was the worst book I ever started!”) told me she had been “swept up” by The Goldfinch. (To be fair, she was only 17 when she dissed Jane Eyre.)

    1. Thanks Nancy – I’m glad you agree with me about the lack of heart. I find it sad. I love that your sister is swept up in it – it seems to be a book that really does have a massive readership, which is no mean feat for a work of literary fiction!

  8. Hi
    I have just downloaded the Goldfinch and am looking forward to reading, especially after your compressive review. I have just finished The Lumininaries and am sorely in need of respite from the verbose prose and dull characters. It was an unnecessarily over long book which I was determined to read to the end. I was not going to let it defeat me – after all it won the Booker Prize so must have had merit. It was cleverly written – no doubt about that. Perhaps a bit too clever. I struggled to work out who was who (and when) and the astrological signs were totally lost on me. The sudden ending? Did the writer get fed up? I’ll never know.
    Regards
    Maureen

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    1. Hi Maureen, I hope you’ll really enjoy The Goldfinch. It’s a different beast entirely to The Luminaries, on which I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have to say, I think having won the Booker is not a sign of a particularly good novel these days. They always seem to go for style over substance.

  9. I loved this book! I found the world and characters realistic and engrossing too, my enjoyment dipped near the end but, after Amsterdam I was enthralled again.

  10. I was looking forward to your review of The Goldfinch, Rachel – and am thrilled with it. The book is my book discussion group’s list for next year, probably the summer months, and I can’t wait to read it. We’ve decided to wait as it is near impossible to get it from libraries, with lists longer than those to Santa Clause! Your perspective, here, gives me a more meaningful perspective as to what the “meat of the matter” of the book is. Thank you.

    1. Such a long wait, Penny! But yes, I can imagine it’s still got waiting lists a mile high at the moment. I hope you will enjoy it, and how wonderful to have a book group to discuss it with!

  11. I read this a few months ago and loved it as well, though I felt the ending didn’t hold up as well as the rest of the book. I’d never read anything by Donna Tartt but I’m on the waiting list for The Secret History. And I did get to see The Goldfinch painting last year at the Fricke — I bought a membership for myself just so I’d get to see the exhibition since the timed tickets were sold out for the weekend I visited NY. I originally went because I was dying to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring, but I loved The Goldfinch painting just as much.

    Another big fat book that swept me away recently was Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Totally different, but I was just as riveted, maybe more so.

    1. How lucky that you got to see the painting! I’ll have to take a trip to The Hague to see it now. The Secret History is marvellous – you should definitely read it. You know, I’ve never read any Kate Atkinson, but I’m sure I’d like her – I will have to check her out.

  12. I felt the reverse. I loved The Luminaries. The sense of place, of time, so evocative. I could see the characters striding the bustling gold rush town. All these different characters thrown together by the pull, the lure of gold and then a mystery in the mix. The jigsaw of putting all the pieces together. I felt I knew, and cared for, the characters.

    Whereas, while there were sections of The Goldfinch that I galloped through, being compelled to find out what happens next, others dragged for me. I finished it because I had devoted so much time and couldn’t “give up”. Hardly a positive reason to finish a book.

    1. Isn’t it interesting how different our reactions can be? I’m glad someone loved The Luminaries…I wish I had loved it more, as it took me so long to read it!

  13. I have read all of Donna Tartt’s novels, actually listened to GOLDFINCH, and loved each on more than the last. I hope she writes another soon. I just finished ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE and now am having trouble finding anything that is that good!

    1. I’m glad you loved all of her novels, Marilyn – though I fear we’ll be waiting another ten years for the next one! There are lots of good looking books coming out this Autumn – I’m hoping that Sarah Waters’ new novel will be a similarly addictive reading experience.

  14. Great review. I loved The Goldfinch as much as you did and am always happy to find others agreed with me especially after seeing some snidey reviews. I’d read The Luminaries first and enjoyed it a lot, but this really blew it out of the water.

  15. Could not agree with you more about Luminaries. I admired the technical skill involved in its creation but It still left me feeling as if something was missing. Haven’t read the Goldfinch so can’t compare them. I’m not exactly on a beach but I am reading a Pullitzer prize winning novel from 1932 on my holiday. Does that count?

  16. Thanks for your review, Rachel – I totally agree with you about this book. I started it feeling mildly grumpy about the length, and ended by being completely hooked by the writing and the characters. The ending itself seems to divide opinions – I loved the philosophical musing, but I know others who felt it didn’t ‘fit’ with the rest of the book. What did you think?
    On the subject of long books, I haven’t read The Luminaries so can’t compare but I’ve just finished ‘The Significance of all Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I think is a wonderful novel, up there with The Goldfinch. The sort of book that you just don’t want to end (in a good way)!

    1. I did think the ending was a little superfluous – but it didn’t ruin anything for me. I’m so glad you enjoyed it – it’s a marvellous read. I’ve had my eye on The Significance of All Things – I’m encouraged by your recommendation so I will try and get to it soon!

  17. I approached The Goldfinch with a little bit of fear, as I had mixed feelings regarding Tartt’s two earlier novels: although I loved “Secret History” I thought “The Little Friend” something of a failure (although it WAS beautifully written). Based on this experience, I was very skeptical that “The Goldfinch” would live up to the hype. Was I wrong! Reading “Goldfinch” was one of those wonderful experiences in which the “fictional” world becomes more real than the physical one surrounding you. By contrast, I found Catton’s “The Luminaries” (which I finished by sheer force of will) pretentious, overly-long and dull, dull, dull. I believe Tartt was a great reader of the classics as a child, especially of Dickens, and more than one reviewer has compared her ability to create a universe filled with memorable characters to his. I found Boris to be one of the most vivid and compelling fictional characters I’ve encountered in a long, long time. Aside from the characters and plot, I also found Tartt’s views about art profoundly moving. I’m glad I had a chance to see the painting before I read her novel: I’m not sure I could bear to look at that brave, captive little goldfinch again.

    1. I’m so glad you shared my opinions! I haven’t read The Little Friend as I have heard many people say the same thing as you – a real disappointment compared to The Secret History. I’d love to see the painting now – I’ll have to head over to the Hague! And yes, I adored Boris – such a vivid character is incredibly hard to create. Tartt did a magnificent job there.

  18. I actually loved The Luminaries, which is making now all the more curious to read The Goldfinch. I’ve wanted to read it for months, no real reason for why I keep pushing it off (except perhaps that I don’t own it and copies aren’t so available at my library!). I thought Catton’s writing was simply brilliant (and I did actually feel there was a lot of intelligent heart behind it, but that may be a matter of taste)… seems like I’m bound to enjoy Tartt’s as well, though perhaps for different reasons!

  19. Unfortunately, I belong to the group of people who disliked this novel. I won’t go into it here because I’ve blogged about it on my site, and you can read it if you want to. I did however like The Luminaries (which I also blogged about), though in retrospect, the story is a bit strange, with no resolution, and I didn’t quite appreciate the zodiac aspect of the novel.

    To each his own, I guess.

  20. I read this in a day and a half on the strength of your review. A wonderful distraction from everything. Thank you for writing about it!

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