Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Drama, Crime, Contemporary fiction

Recently named winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, a boy who survives the bombing that takes his mother’s life. In the chaos that follows, Theo is taken in by a posh New York family and, well, suffice to say that a painting of a bird is involved, and things don’t get easier for our teenaged hero.

Tartt has a gift for language and detail – based on her descriptions, I find myself wanting to see New York in real life. From the very beginning, when Theo and his mother are caught in the rain through to Theo’s time spent alone in Hobie’s furniture store, you can almost believe you’re there with Theo himself. Theo’s remembered places and experiences are both dreamlike and solid at the same time; they feel real even when they’re unrealistic. Despite its heft, the book is easy to read; there’s a cushiony feel about the prose that makes it easy to sink in to; it’s almost comforting in a way.

Any yet, there were many times I found it hard to immerse myself in his story. Why? Multiple reasons, really. Perhaps dumbest of all is the whole business with the timeline. When is the book set? It’s not clear. Such a simple matter, and yet so irritating. We start with Theo as a grown man in Amsterdam before the narrative segues into his childhood. I had thought that this meant that the Amsterdam stuff was happening present-day-ish, but then aspects of Theo’s adolescence felt too modern. Instead of concentrating on Theo’s story, I found myself distracted by thoughts like: So the accident happened after 9-11? Is the Amsterdam stuff happening in the future then? When did Unleashed come out? Isn’t that kind of text-speak outdated? Why is there old digital clock font in a modern-day text? What?

Similarly, other aspects of the writing threw me out of the story. Particularly during the accident at the start, I wasn’t sure if Theo was retelling a story or if we were living it with him in real-time. This might seem trivial, but it does change how you interpret events. Another issue I had was with Theo himself. He’s meant to be a teenage boy, but there’s something about his observations that make him sound like a mature, well-to-do white woman. It’s more than precociousness (and boy is he precocious); I mean, improbable art history expertise aside, what thirteen-year-old boy recognises when someone is dressed in Valentino and knows that the lipgloss stick thingy is a “wand”? It would seem that this book was written by someone even more out of touch with today’s youth than yours truly, and that’s a worrying thought.

Another aspect of Theo that felt unrealistic to me was his ordeal with drugs. I can’t place my finger on it, but something about the casual but meticulous way things are described feels very researched and calculated. It’s as if the author’s trawled Internet forums about substance abuse and included her findings in the book as something ~edgy. Now, I know nothing about the author and her history. For all I know, she’s had experience dealing with substance abuse and knows what she’s on about. As a reader, however, something about it just did not feel genuine.

So too did the parts of the book dealing with art and art appreciation. The detailed and technical art discussions sounded like excerpts from someone’s essay rather than actual thoughts or experiences of actual people. Unfortunately, I got the impression that the author wanted to show off how cultured she was – which is sad, as I suppose the intent here was to inspire.

Other than the style, I also found the plot and characters a little unsatisfying. I am fine with the whole concept of this being one of those direction-less, that’s-how-life-is sort of books, but what I did not expect was for the narrative to jump from setting to setting and genre to genre. On the one hand this was exciting. You got new characters and drama and action and humour and a bildungsroman crime caper all in one – the book was never boring. On the other hand, it was also frustrating. Every time I thought the author was going to go deeper into a relationship or situation, things moved sideways instead. As a corollary, many of the characters never rise far above their stereotypes.

I’ve complained a lot, but a lot of this comes from how good the book is. I was so captivated by Theo’s experience that it became really noticeable when things felt unnatural and wrong. And here, I guess, I come to the controversy that is the ending. Feel free to skip this paragraph now, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that there is no ending. In the last chapter, Theo engages in some navel-gazing that does nothing to wrap up the plot. To me it felt like a cop out. It’s as if the author couldn’t or wouldn’t decide how she wanted things to go, so they didn’t go anywhere at all. Instead, we get a discussion on the book’s ~themes~. The worst part of this is that Theo’s undergraduate introspective philosomaphising isn’t even riveting, though I may have been blinded by anger at this point. The words sound pretty though.

The Goldfinch is a richly detailed account of one troubled boy’s life, tenderly and lovingly drawn. However, I find it hard to recommend: it annoyed me too much with its pretentiousness, its implausibility and its failure to provide narrative closure. In short, The Goldfinch a good book, but it’s not great, and you can probably find something better. Then again, what’s my opinion worth? There’s only one Pulitzer winner here and it sure as hell ain’t me.

Alex’s Rating: 3/5

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