The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a very long book (771 pages). So I’m going to write a short(ish) review. In fact, for every hundred pages that Tartt wrote, I’ll write just a thought or two.

1.Intimate. That’s the word I’d use to describe The Goldfinch. It might be considered an odd description for a book of almost 800 pages and a story that spans a few countries and a couple of decades. But whether it’s furniture restoration, the Strip in Vegas, baccarat, New York’s elite, pills or Ukrainian thugs, Tartt writes with intimate knowledge. This is the kind of writing that goes beyond having ‘just done the research’.

“What would Thoreau have made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams, its projections and hollow facades?”

In an early scene, Theo’s mother explains the intricacies of the Dutch Masters and in doing so, sums up precisely what Tartt has done on the page –

“‘Well the Dutch invented the microscope,’ she said. ‘They were jewelers, grinders of lenses. They want it all as detailed as possible because even the tiniest things mean something….'”

2. Pace. You know when you see the weather report and it says “It’s ten degrees but it feels like 5.” This book was 771 pages but it felt like 300. I couldn’t stop reading – I was squeezing in minutes here and there, going to sleep late, getting up early, all because of Theo and his painting. A true page-turner and Tartt didn’t drop the ball once.

3. ALL THE STRESS. I was stressed for basically 750 of the 771 pages. Helena Fitzgerald’s review sums it up perfectly.

“The Goldfinch kept me up all night. But anxiety keeps you up all night, too. It wasn’t the joyful insomnia that I associate with being a lonely child reading all night under covers, galloping through books eager to consume more and yet more of their worlds. Rather this was the insomnia of adulthood, a similar skin-itching wakefulness concerned with wondering how the bills will get paid and if I’ve offended anyone I love.”

But again, isn’t it amazing that words can make you feel like that? So consistently, and for so long?

4. Crisp. Not a single sentence is superfluous. I had to force myself to slow down and savour every word.

“All summer long I had been practically delirious: tingling, daffy, energized, running on gin and shrimp cocktail and the invigorating whock of tennis balls.”

5. Things. A signet ring, The Idiot, Tiffany glass, emerald earrings or a little white dog – Tartt bundles up why material things are so important to people in a tidy package that comes together beautifully at the end with some (lengthy) philosophising (perhaps Tartt’s most self-indulgent moment).

6. Place. I really enjoy books that create a sense of place (and it’s a bonus if I’ve been to those places and the author gets it right for me). Tartt’s New York, with its doormen, uptown buses, museums, bars, musty shops tucked in seemingly forgotten streets and Chinese take-out was perfect. Equally good was the glaring heat of Vegas, cluttered with lights and noise but devoid of heart. Finally, Amsterdam at Christmas-time.

7. Grief. Any story that involves a child losing their mother crushes me to smithereens. The Goldfinch is packed with orphans and Tartt writes about grief so well. Occasionally it’s explicit –

“But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”

But for much of the story it’s carefully embroidered into Theo, Pippa and Borris’s every move (as well as the symbolism of the Goldfinch’s tethering chain).

“Carnival colors, giant clown heads and XXX signs: the strangeness exhilarated me, and also frightened me a little. In New York, everything reminded me of my mother – every taxi, every street corner, every cloud that passed over the sun – but out in this hot mineral emptiness, it was as if she had never existed…. All trace of her seemed burned away in the thin desert air.”

8. Donna Tartt is hailed as one of the “…greatest American novelists of the last half-century…” (see video).  Fair enough, although I do think with just three books to your name (regardless of how successful those books were) in thirty years, you’re not above being compared to other “great novelists”. As such, The Goldfinch was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close meets Last Night in Twisted River meets The Wolf of Wall Street.

4.5/5 Some reviewers are looking for flaws. Whatever. I couldn’t put it down (half a mark off because ALL THE STRESS).

The first time Theo eats, really eats, after his initial trauma is a simple grilled cheese sandwich made by Hobie. My very favourite take on grilled cheese comes from a local cafe, Snow Pony, who make the extraordinary Fabulous Herb & Cheesy Toast. I think there’s Bechamel sauce involved. I dream about it, it’s so good. One that looks equally good is this Jalapeno Popper Grilled Cheese via Simply Scratch.


19 responses

  1. Agree, agree, agree. I saw some people saying that it was riddled with error and so flawed and with flabby prose, and needed a good edit. I just couldn’t believed they’d read the same book, because I also thought it was tightly written and glittering. I like your addition of cheese toastie plug too.

  2. This book has been sitting on my shelf, daring me to read it, but it looks so…damn big! I’m trying to read a book a week and I keep thinking it will take up at least a month. So thanks for your review, it’s given me hope that it might not be as daunting as I think!

  3. I skimmed your review (mostly) because I plan to read this one soon (…don’t laugh). But I adore grilled cheese sandwiches, my favorite is Havarti on grilled herb sourdough (with bacon and tomatoes if I’m feeling ambitious).

    • God I love Havarti. And herb sourdough. And bacon. And tomatoes. Yeah, I’m easy to please.

      This book seems to be dividing people so I’ll be interested to hear what you think – seems some think it’s self-indulgent, too full of itself, too wordy. I read it for book group – we met last night, everyone loved it (this rarely happens in my book group) although there were mixed feelings about the ending. I found the book such an excellent, absorbing read that by the time I got to the end I didn’t really mind what happened (does that make sense?!).

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  6. Recently read this and posted a review on my blog. It was certainly a bit too long…but I do love long books, so I was ok with that. However it was definitely dark and depressing. I really enjoyed the book and was wrapped up in it. What more can I ask? 🙂 Great review.

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