Surely The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt must be one the the most reviewed and talked about books of the last ten years. Certainly it was one of the most anticipated. I had mixed feelings about it. I don’t know why, but from the very beginning the title bored me. The Secret History had been the book that, in my twenties, made me passionate about reading. Even now twenty-something years later, long after I have forgotten the plot, I still think about that book and how much it excited me. I’ve recommended it to my friends so many times along the way and I don’t believe that it has ever let me down.
Then came The Little Friend. Dear Lord! You could not have imagined any greater anticipation than mine. I had, like all early fans of The Secret History, waited ten long, interminable years for Tartt to produce something else and, when she finally did, I hated it. It was like wading through treacle. I must have stopped and started that book about ten times and still never made it more than half way through. It was destined to be another Catch 22, for me the book that everyone tells me is so great and yet I find wholly impenetrable.
I didn’t even buy The Goldfinch. I heard a rumour that it was about 250 pages too long (it is) and how the word ‘masterpiece’ kept being bandied about. In a nutshell, I didn’t believe the hype.
I do however have a rather marvellous husband who, whilst searching for a Mother’s Day idea, came across The Goldfinch and so, one March morning, all 771 pages landed on my bed, along with a moral obligation to read it. Needless to say, it stayed unread for months as I planned to ‘save’ it for the Summer holidays. When they arrived, as predicted, I found myself dreaming of lighter reads. Nonetheless, I packed it my suitcase and took it with me to Europe. This in itself was a big commitment as the book weighs several pounds. If I was going to carry it, that meant I had to read it. Right? Right.
The Goldfinch is the kind of book that most of us mean to read and seldom get around too. A beautifully written and spectacularly conceived book, worthy of our attention. If you are looking for a ‘fast paced’ or thrilling read you are unlikely to find it here, although as a novel it contains pretty much everything that any reader could ever want: terrorism, unrequited love, friendship, alcoholism, drug addiction, lies, compulsive gambling, redemption, criminality, corruption, and murder. Nonetheless it is not a novel that is going to be rushed through these topics, but if you do manage to find yourself with a couple of hours, the chapters do progressively slip away. I was easily able to put it down, but like rich chocolates one always comes back for just a little bit more.
My mother-in-law told me that she had read a statistic claiming that The Goldfinch is the book that people are most likely to own and least likely to finish. She herself has apparently never quite managed the final twenty pages. On one level I understand this. It is a book of diversions. The main action of the story, the bombing of the art gallery, happens at the very beginning of the book, after which things slow down. If this were a film or tv adaptation, The Goldfinch would fall flat on its face. Pages, if not chapters, go by where not that much happens apart from incredible character development and the subtle nuances of life. The middle chapters where our main protagonist moves to Las Vegas with his father are at once both fascinating and deathly slow. In short, if you were to suggest this to your Book Club, you may rest assured that you would not be invited to choose again.
Each character in the The Goldfinch exists very clearly in the mind of the reader. You know Theo Decker, both as boy and man. His friend Boris may not be like anyone you have met before, he may be terrible in many ways but you laugh with him, you understand him, you even like him. Boris, you would happily go for a drink with, but equally would never allow your children anywhere near. The Barbour family, whose very name exudes wealth and status, provide us with a complex range of emotions running the gamut from gratitude to pity. Theo’s relationship with the women within the Barbour family proves fascinating and ridden with moral guilt both as son and lover. Finally, where does one begin with Hobie? I spent a great deal of the book oscillating between love and distrust of Hobie; surely something was going to happen there?
So in the end, as I write this, I am left wondering why I did enjoy this book so much? Yes, The Goldfinch, is slow, too long and at points could have done with editing, but ultimately it is beautiful in so many ways and, for me at least, it promises a return to the Donna Tartt that I loved so much. A way back into great writing, which if not readily accessible is most definitely worth the effort.