You know that uniquely torturous last week of work before you go on vacation, when you’re obsessively checking weather reports and find yourself spacing out to to thoughts of fudge and salt-water taffy? That’s me right now, just four days shy of my annual sojourn to the peaceful post-Labor Day rhythms of Ocean City, New Jersey. My bag is half-packed and I’ve got my reading list sorted (new Tana French, new-ish Marisha Pessl, new-adjacent Karen Joy Fowler); all I need is to survive the next 93 hours. It’s exactly like that James Franco movie, except less time and I’m not trapped and at the end of everything I anticipate still having both arms.
Little has been able to hold my attention since the 10-day New Jersey forecast became relevant, with the exception of The Goldfinch, the much-discussed winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Donna Tartt’s first novel since The Little Friend in 2002 (and before that, The Secret History in 1992). I’d been delaying starting The Goldfinch for months, both because it’s exceedingly long (around 800 pages) and because people have Opinions about The Goldfinch, and sometimes it’s hard to get objectively invested in a book when one is aware, however vaguely, of the existence of Opinions. But surely, I thought as I searched for the door-stopper of a galley copy I’d plopped onto my bookshelf six months ago (ultimately traded for the e-book within 10 pages), surely a Pulitzer Prize winner can’t be bad. Surely I couldn’t hate it. And so with some trepidation, and a quiet symphony of Atlantic Ocean waves playing at the edge of my subconscious, I dove in.
Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker is suffering through a typical pre-adolescent day in New York City when an unexpected event results in the death of his mother. Left semi-orphaned, Theo finds himself taken in by the wealthy Upper East Side parents of his childhood friend Andy and, once settled in their Park Avenue apartment, struggles to find his place among the sophisticated Barbours, with their dinner parties and formal friends and proclivities for upper-crust activities like sailing. More than anything, Theo misses his mother, and in missing her becomes increasingly obsessed with her favorite painting, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. As Theo’s life progresses—through locations and jobs and relationships—it is the painting that stays with him, and through which he tries to make some sense of his mother’s death, and I suppose of life itself.
Many have used the word “Dickensian” to describe The Goldfinch, which is an unnecessarily fancy way of saying the book is character-ridden and almost ludicrously descriptive. Tartt, and by proxy Theo, our narrator, has never met a noun she couldn’t qualify, and no person presented in even the most marginal sense in TG is left without some heavy-handed portraiture: Everyone is rumpled or bejeweled or chews a particular gum or wears a particular belt buckle. The Goldfinch’s travel scenes in particular offer up an endless array of one-off mental pictures; in Tartt’s world, one notices what brand of cigarette the TSA agent has tucked behind her ear and what color t-shirt the guy at the combo Pizza Hut/Taco Bell is wearing underneath his hoodie.
Nor are actions immune from this Decker/Tartt Dickensian assault. In TG, things happen “___ingly”—hovering takes place “obtrusively,” words are said “mournfully,” thinking is done “grimly” (“grim/grimly,” used 13 times in the novel, is a Decker/Tartt favorite; close seconds include “grimace” (8 times) and “grimy” (5 times)).
But Tartt’s penchant for description, however close it brings the novel to the edge of Overdone, is also what makes The Goldfinch special, and when executed well (“the surface of the swimming pool wrinkled and sinister-looking,” “Janet who said excellent! in answer to everything and drank coffee from a pink mug that said Janet”) more than manages to overshadow those times when it’s not strictly necessary (airports) or when it becomes redundant (Andy’s voice is referred to as “faraway” what seems like 54 times.) Description is clearly Tartt’s jam, and watching her unleash frame after frame of fully imagined fiction is rewarding enough to make even the most absurd adjectives seem on the verge of inspired.
More important, all the winding exposition sets up what turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful story. There’s no way to explain why without giving away spoilers, but only in hindsight do I understand why the summaries of this novel (including mine) are so cagey (get it? because birds) and vague: an “accident,” a “mysteriously captivating painting,” an “examination of friendship.” Having read The Secret History some billion years ago, I suppose I should have remembered Tartt’s unique talent for unleashing pulp fiction twists amid Pulitzer-winning prose, but I didn’t and so was slightly surprised to find myself up late reading while sending respectfully cryptic texts to a friend who was also Kindling TG this week (“omg get to 70%. SEVENTY. PERCENT.”)
The Goldfinch is also, and I mean this as a wholehearted compliment, a bit of a bummer. While other readers seek out the clean finish, the moral center, the sense of resolution, I find myself more at home in the blithely pessimistic, in narratives unafraid to explore a perceived meaninglessness to human existence. Maybe it’s cowardly to write off a purpose that isn’t easy (or perhaps possible) to understand; maybe characters/narrators who do so are unlikable, or unrelateable. But in Theo, Tartt creates a compelling misanthrope, a sympathetic lost soul with profound weaknesses, whom fate seems to have dealt a bad enough hand that you can’t help but root for him. I don’t know that I ever really like Theo Decker, but I kind of get him. In many ways, that’s more important.
Since finishing The Goldfinch, I’ve done a brief tour through the aforementioned Opinions, and they mostly seem to jibe with mine: It’s linguistically indulgent and the ending leaves something to be desired, but otherwise a solid book, a gripping read. The Goldfinch got a glowing review from Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times and high praise from Stephen King, Chief Exposition Officer of the Really-Long-Book Club. It has 3.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon (15,000+ reviews) and oh right, yes, it won the Pulitzer.
But TG does have its more ardent detractors, people who seem personally offended that anyone might enjoy this novel. “I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’” Francine Prose mused in The New York Review of Books. The Paris Review panned The Goldfinch, as did the London Book Review (and my-home-away-from-ST Newsweek). “Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” James Wood wrote in the New Yorker. He later told Vanity Fair: “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”
There are nuggets of truth in these critiques. Does The Goldfinch suffer from pitfalls one might not expect of a Pulitzer-winner? Yes. Is the prose overly done and do certain parts drag on a little and does the story circle back on itself with a bit of convenient cinematic symmetry? Sure. But this is a Great Book, and to count its accessibility against it flies in the face of a long list of Classics that are taught to middle-school students, or authors who were panned as lowbrow in their own time. (Plus I don’t trust anyone who talks shit on Harry Potter.)
This standoff between literary and popular fiction is old hat, and plays out pretty much anytime an author considered to be in one camp finds themselves discussed in the other. In his 2003 acceptance speech for a National Book Foundation medal, Stephen King (who by the time he was acknowledged by the Foundation had written well over 50 books) admonished critics and fellow authors about the lit/pop divide. “Tokenism is not allowed,” he said. “You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, ‘Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.’ It’s not good enough. … What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?”
Indeed, The Goldfinch may not appeal to the class of literary critics who use bildungsroman in casual conversation, and its flaws may be insurmountable for certain discerning readers. But if you’re a regular person who likes words and when they are used to describe things and people, who’s down for a sprawling coming-of-age mystery with oddball sidekicks and a murky but kind of insightful takeaway message, then fuck the haters: The Goldfinch is for you. Pick it up now—and carefully, because you could herniate a disc or something.
TITLE: The Goldfinch
AUTHOR: Donna Tartt
PAGES: Kindled (but something close to 800)
ALSO WROTE: The Secret History, The Little Friend
SORTA LIKE: White Oleander meets The Casual Vacancy J.K. Rowling (as opposed to Harry Potter J.K.)
FIRST LINE: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”