When people ask me what I thought about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, here’s what I’ll tell them: I finished the book on a white knuckle cross country plane ride buffeted by 165 mile-per-hour headwinds while sandwiched between a cranky four-year-old and my 6’4 husband, with my four-month old baby lashed to my chest. If you ask me, this qualifies as some kind of miracle–a miracle that Tartt deserves all the credit for. That the book was brought on the trip at all is a testament to her mastery. From a practical standpoint, hefting this 771-page brick back and forth from Portland to Connecticut made about as much sense as loading up my backpack full of rocks. But I was already 150 pages in when we started packing and I just couldn’t help myself.
Tartt once said that the “first duty of the novelist is to entertain.” “The journey that I want to take the reader on always is the journey I loved most when I was reading as a child–just this galloping, gleeful [adventure],” Tartt told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. Judged by this standard The Goldfinch is a spectacular success. I can’t think of book I’ve read in recent years that can match it for sheer, propulsive readability. Tartt is the kind of transfixing storyteller to whom you will sacrifice hours of your life even when doing so makes no sense whatsoever. And this kind of talent deserves a lot of praise in a time when the quiet pleasures of reading are constantly in danger of being drowned out by louder, more frenetic mediums. I’ve heard The Goldfinch described as “Harry Potter for grownups” and it’s a pretty apt description of the book, which, at its heart, is a love letter to Dickens–a sprawling, unbridled bildungsroman featuring a bewildered orphan who hurtles along through life on the coattails of a host of deeply lovable outcasts, always missing disaster by inches. It’s a book that’s hard not to love. And yet, I didn’t quite love it.
Reading The Goldfinch, I spent a lot of time trying to separate my responses to the book as writer and as a reader. Tartt, like a musical prodigy, is such a virtuoso she can perform technical feats that would prove impossible for the merely talented. Ask most writers to build a compelling narrative around a terrorist attack, a dead mother, a stolen painting, New York high society, a no-goodnick, gambling addict dad, a ghostly suburban cul de sac in Las Vegas, a good natured Russian expat teenager turned low level mobster, pill popping, a broken engagement and unrequited love and they would laugh in your face. For the vast majority of us, the chances of doing even half of this convincingly would be near nil. Not for Tartt; she can do it all. And she does it so well, and with such obvious pleasure, that even when she strains credibility to the buckling point, most readers will still happily go along for the ride, me included. All the way through the book, I felt the echo of the joy I experienced reading Great Expectations in high school—a book that I feared would be an epic slog that instead turned out to be a kind of gateway drug into Victorian literature. As a writer, my response was different.
The Goldfinch is such an elaborately constructed book that it read to me almost like the answer to a bet. That Tartt clearly won the bet is almost beside the point. Why accept it at all, I kept wondering. Just because you can? The best writers, in my mind, don’t set out to wow the reader with their prodigious gifts, but instead use these gifts in service of a deeper purpose–to give voice to the invisible currents of feeling that animate our inner lives. By allowing her own talent to run away with her as she sometimes does in this book, Tartt races past opportunities to confront more profound truths. Is this self indulgence on her part or a deliberate choice to dazzle rather than challenge the reader? My sense is it’s probably a little bit of both. In a book about something else this wouldn’t be so distracting. But in a book that is, purportedly, about the transcendent, enduring nature of art, it’s harder not to notice. Art’s real power is its ability to wrestle with the unanswerable and, in the end, The Goldfinch feels too manufactured and easily digestible to do its subject real justice.
In his review of The Goldfinch, The New Yorker’s James Wood wrote, reading the book:
I kept on trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’etre and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction . . . a novel with no stolen painting, no inexplicable theft and unlikely explosion, no shoot-outs, no sudden death and fatal abandonments, and fewer Dickensian or Nesbittian shops . . . [I wondered] does Tartt have any idea of the very different writer she might still choose to be?
I still think it’s not anyone’s place to tell Tartt what kind of writer she should be. She is clearly not a member of the high church of realist fiction and that’s just fine. But much as I enjoyed The Goldfinch, I came away from the book understanding what Wood was getting at. Tartt certainly fulfilled her mission to entertain, but I’m convinced she can do so much more. I can’t help hoping that with the next book she’ll decide to speak to the adult in us rather than try to reawaken the child.