the goldfinch, by donna tartt–a strangely overrated and underrated book

by janedotx7

The Goldfinch came out a couple years ago, so I’m late to the party, but Donna Tartt spent eleven years writing it. If she can take her time, so can I. I picked it up not knowing anything about the book proper, or even that that’s supposed to be a painting of a bird on the cover. All I knew was that there was a huge controversy over its winning the Pulitzer. Half of the literary establishment thought it was amazing, the new Dickens–a definite black mark, as I am a Dickens-hater–but the other half thought it was horrible, that it was a children’s book posing as literature and a sign of the decay of the modern reader. That sounded like the kind of snobby sentiment I could sympathize with, but the hater half included Francine Prose, who I hate as much as I hate Dickens. How to balance these two heuristics? So I was very excited about this book. I thought my reaction would reveal something important about who I was as a reader, as if the discovery of my feelings about it was a literary version of the Sorting Hat.

So how disappointing was it when I fell smack in the middle? I neither loved the book nor hated it. While I was reading it, I was engaged and entertained, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about either way. Some of it, I suppose, is that my heart thrills to the tropes of bad fantasy fiction most of all–if I’d been raised on books that weren’t Dungeons and Dragons manuals, maybe I would have loved this book more.

One criticism I’ve seen of The Goldfinch is that it is a book full of ridiculous, implausible coincidences, starting with the very premise itself. The book begins with the narrator losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, an old man, who in his dying throes regresses back to his life in WWII Europe, rescuing priceless works of art from invaders, encourages our hero Theo Decker to steal the titular painting, “The Goldfinch,” to keep it safe from said hallucinated invaders.

Having read the book, I do not think that the psychology of the old man seems implausible. I don’t see why the combination of the shock of a large explosion, and a failing mind from mortal injury, might not scramble his brains. The old man was an art-lover who knew that works of art were under threat, he sought assistance in rescuing it–is more required? Perhaps it wouldn’t ever happen that particular way in real life, but this is what artistic license is all about. No real-life situation survives the novelist’s transcription, and to quibble too strongly about implausible coincidences would mean throwing out all of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre. (Not that I would be personally opposed to this, but a lot of the Tartt-haters really like Dickens and seem offended she’s compared to him, so presumably this argument is a gotcha for them.)

But probably the premise would have seemed more plausible, had the rest of the book been more emotionally sound. The very best part of the book is the middle, where a teenaged Theo, still deeply traumatized from his mother’s death, bonds with another damaged boy, a Russian with an abusive father named Boris. If I had to guess, Tartt was the kind of goody two shoes in school who was a bookworm after school, but she puts on a convincing and fun display of juvenile larceny and dissipation. Boris introduces Theo to vodka and worse drugs, and eggs him on in all sorts of petty theft, but nevertheless, he becomes the best friend and brother Theo could have ever wanted. It is here, in the friendship between Boris and Theo, that the true heart of The Goldfinch beats.

But then Tartt ruins it with a strange and snobbish fixation on the glory of antique furniture, and Renaissance-era painting techniques. I finished the book feeling rather cheated–the book so clearly wants to be about art, its ability to link the far past with the far future, and the possibility for grace and redemption that loving and protecting great art can offer–but the book is really about trauma, and attempting to process it. Theo spends a great deal of money self-medicating on any pill he can get his hands on, for instance, and his endless misadventures with drugs play a far greater role in his character development than keeping the painting does. I read the last thirty pages or so, a sophomoric disquisition on the beauty of The Goldfinch, the painting, and on the power of great art in general, that felt like a high-schooler’s thoughts on art–and I kept thinking, surely this is Theo being an unreliable narrator, surely this is some postmodernist trick, and there will be hints that all is not well, Theo is deluded about the role of art in helping him to heal? But no, evidently it was entirely sincere.

And that, I think, is the truth behind the accusations of “implausibility”–Tartt wrote a book about one thing, and then insisted at you that it was really about another. Much as I don’t like Dickens, his books hang together better than that, and he never had the bad manners to lecture at you.

So there you have it, I suppose. The critic James Wood accused Tartt of writing on a level fit only for children, thus infantilizing adult literature, but I suspect he felt a need to push back against the enthusiastic overreaction this book received. The truth is, The Goldfinch is a deeply flawed book, but it’s still a good, readable book, which puts it on par with most every other good book that is still bad enough that it will be quietly forgotten.