BookShots: 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who Wrote It?
Donna Tartt, author of uber-cult hit The Secret History, whose glacially slow writing pace makes every novel she produces a major media event.
Plot in a Box:
Boy steals a rare masterpiece (the 'Goldfinch' of the title) which both sustains and chains him as he makes slow progress towards adulthood.
Invent a new title for this book:
My Own Private Albatross
Read this if you liked:
The Secret History and were disappointed by Tartt’s second book, The Little Friend. This, her third novel, represents a triumphant return to form.
Meet the book’s lead:
Theo Decker, a modern-day counterpart to Dicken’s Pip, who misspends his youth in the company of Russian gangster-spawn Boris, tries to fit in with New York’s monied elite, and finally finds himself in the backstreets of Amsterdam.
Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:
River Phoenix if he were still with us. Leonardo DiCaprio if he were still young. Aaron Perry Johnson of Kick Ass fame will do instead.
Setting: would you want to live there?
The Goldfinch takes us from New York’s Upper East Side to dusty subdivisions in the Las Vegas desert, back to New York, but this time to the bohemian charm of Greenwich Village, and from there to a chilly Christmas showdown in Amsterdam. With Tartt as my companion, I would happily reside in any of these places, even Vegas.
What was your favorite sentence?
The Goldfinch is stuffed with goodies, but this example captures the way Tartt can use words to circle around a concept, then just at the point the reader’s interest starts to slip, spiral in on a piece of imagery so salient it makes your eyes water.
To understand the world at all sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at which was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole, but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I’d felt drowned and extinguished by vastness – not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.
The ten year wait for Tartt’s second novel after Secret History's massive success meant expectations had been raised to such a level of hysteria that only a work delivering both literary excellence and a cure for cancer would have satisfied. The Little Friend, while not terrible, fell short on both counts, leading to the usual ritual bloodletting. Hopefully, this time we have all calmed down a bit and Tartt’s third novel will get a fairer assessment.
Not that it needs one. The Goldfinch showcases Tartt’s real strength as a writer – the creation of the kind of flawed-yet-charming characters we would watch from a safe distance in real life, but who we get to observe close up in her books. Her narrator Theo, who bobs unmoored through adolescence while various adults fail to care about him very much, is compelling enough, but Tartt also gives us an Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist in the form of Boris, the kind of force of nature who, age fifteen, chugs vodka as a digestif and introduces Theo to a lifestyle so decadent it would wring an envious tear from the eye of Peter the Great. It’s hard to get enough of Boris and Theo, and that’s not to mention the strong cast of supporting players: Hobie, the monkish furniture restorer who becomes Theo’s moral compass, Pippa, the enigmatic fellow-orphan he falls in love with, and of course Audrey Decker, Theo’s beautiful, doomed mother.
All that and a plot too. The Goldfinch isn’t exactly a thriller, but as Theo tries to hang onto his purloined treasure, it contains enough suspense to justify its length. There’s a proper ending too, and a settling of accounts which gives this work the sense of closure which The Little Friend fatally lacked. If this predicts an upwards trend for Tartt’s work, then in ten year’s time when novel #4 appears, I will be first in line.
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