The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Bought for 2/3 of £8.99 from Blackwells, which is ... er, hold on ... £5.99

Bought for 2/3 of £8.99 from Blackwell’s, which is … er, hold on … £5.99

I first heard about this book from customers who came in asking if we had any copies. This is a common thing. People who don’t usually go into charity or secondhand bookshops don’t know how the complexion of the stock works. There are only certain things that are nearly always in stock: popular classics (Dracula, Emma etc.), anything by a huge-selling author (McCall Smith, Grisham etc.) and books that are as ever-present as nitrogen (Michael Palin’s Himalaya, Katie Price’s Being Jordan etc). The rest of the stock depends on what comes in.

So after being asked several times if we had a copy of The Goldfinch, I found myself curious enough to buy a copy. Sadly, at the time, despite the popularity, it was too recent for a secondhand copy to be available, so I shopped around for a new one, and surprise surprise, it turned up in a 3 for 2 sale in Blackwell’s.

One compensation for paying higher for a book than I usually would is that this one weighs in at 864 pages, so potentially good value there (nomiresdebajodelacama thinks not). But of course, this is a novel, not an economics tract as the intro suggests by now.

What was peculiarly attractive in what I’d heard about it was the difficulty anyone had in describing it. In a sentence, it’s about the what happens to a kid when he comes into possession of a famous painting (of the titular goldfinch). There’s a severe randomness in the events that unfold as he persists in keeping a hold on his find. This might account for the desire to keep with the story as a reader – a certain feeling of ‘whatever next?’, without this being marred by any preposterousness in what happens (shotdownartist thinks things pick up as you go along, contrary to the blogger above, who thinks the reverse).

The readability that helps overcome the daunting size has been commented on in respect of literary language being sacrificed for the sake of accessibility. There is a politics there in what kind of book should win the Pulitzer Prize, which The Goldfinch did (he says in an unliterary sentence). Can’t say I’m terribly interested in that debate, but I did wonder at this enprizement during my read. This was mainly because I kept asking myself ‘why are you telling us all this?’ There didn’t seem to be a driving point or topic. Yet the arbitrariness of events, the waiting for the kid – Theo – to get drawn into the underworld as promised by the blurb, all seemed refreshingly unoverblown, so the everydayness gave a sense of reality from which conclusions weren’t easy to draw. This, it turns out, is the point (ish, to which we’ll return below).

This was especially the case with the character Boris. Boris is one of those characters who could easily become highly influential in literature. The son of a Russian manual worker in the oil industry, he’s lived out of a suitcase all his life, missing consistent schooling, becoming educated instead by exposure to different countries and different ways to live within them. He’s a realist ahead of his years, morally relativist, and entertainingly so for someone driven to get whatever he can from an existence whose basic conditions are mostly outside his control. Boris’s matter-of-factness is, I would dare to venture, a good enough reason alone to read this novel, as is Theo’s moral ambiguity, in that he’s neither hero nor anti-hero. But Boris is also a device. The concluding chapters seem to hastily bring you to conclusions about the difficulties in drawing conclusions – Boris is one of the prime foundations for this. But any feeling that you’ve been fed some cod-philosophy is slight. The conclusions about conclusions will only be disputed by the kind of dedicated dogmatist who’s unlikely to read this novel in the first place. So on the other hand, and consequently, the conclusions don’t say that much.

Which does raise the question as to whether it might have benefitted from having pages (even literally) chopped, perhaps a couple of hundred of them, especially in the dialogue. I concur. It’s a handy book for a holiday or passing away your work lunchtimes. It does offer the satisfaction in completing a tome. And it means you’ll know what the fuss was all about, whether you think it was justified or not. Maybe, then, a secondhand copy won’t leave you feeling short-changed?


Excerpt from p.857/8 (don’t worry, there’s no plot spoiler here – Tartt has publicly read this extract herself):

Who knows why Fabritius painted the goldfinch at all? A tiny, stand-alone masterpiece, unique of all its kind? He was young, celebrated. He had important patrons (although unfortunately almost none of the work he did for them survives). You’d imagine him like the young Rembrandt, flooded with grandiose commissions, his studios resplendent with jewels and battle axes, goblets and furs, leopard skins and costume armor, all the power and sadness of earthly things. Why this subject? A lonely pet bird? Which was in no way characteristic of his age or time, where animals featured mainly dead, in sumptuous trophy pieces, limp hares and fish and fowl, heaped high and bound for table? Why does it seem so significant to me that the wall is plain—no tapestry or hunting horns, no stage decoration—and that he took such care to inscribe his name and the year with such prominence, since he can hardly have known (or did he?) that 1654, the year he made the painting, would also be the year of his death? There’s a shiver of premonition about it somehow, as if perhaps he had an intimation that this tiny mysterious piece would be one of the very few works to outlive him. The anomaly of it haunts me on every level. Why not something more typical? Why not a seascape, a landscape, a history painting, a commissioned portrait of some important person, a low-life scene of drinkers in a tavern, a bunch of tulips for heaven’s sake, rather than this lonely little captive? Chained to his perch? Who knows what Fabritius was trying to tell us by his choice of tiny subject? His presentation of tiny subject? And if what they say is true—if every great painting is really a self-portrait—what, if anything, is Fabritius saying about himself? A painter thought so surpassingly great by the greatest painters of his day, who died so young, so long ago, and about whom we know almost nothing? About himself as a painter: he’s saying plenty. His lines speak on their own. Sinewy wings; scratched pinfeather. The speed of his brush is visible, the sureness of his hand, paint dashed thick. And yet there are also half-transparent passages rendered so lovingly alongside the bold, pastose strokes that there’s tenderness in the contrast, and even humor; the underlayer of paint is visible beneath the hairs of his brush; he wants us to feel the downy breast-fluff, the softness and texture of it, the brittleness of the little claw curled about the brass perch.

But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself? Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth and power. There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching. I think of something I read about Sargent: how, in portraiture, Sargent always looked for the animal in the sitter (a tendency that, once I knew to look for it, I saw everywhere in his work: in the long foxy noses and pointed ears of Sargent’s heiresses, in his rabbit-toothed intellectuals and leonine captains of industry, his plump owl-faced children). And, in this staunch little portrait, it’s hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.

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24 Responses to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    After reading the blurb, I wanna’ see the painting. I like the writing style. Doubt I’ll ever get around to pouring through an 864 page book, though, even if I am curious about Boris.

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  2. Guy Savage says:

    I know someone who has decided to not read any more books over 500 pages as so many of these books (noted above) seemed to badly need chopping. I’m not opposed to reading an unlimited amount of pages, as long as there’s something to say. Just finished a 1000 page Goebbels biography that was worth every word.
    But I also read the 656 page The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. Won all sorts of prizes and was IMO a mess.

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    • Jeff says:

      As I’ve just said to Lucy, I used the book when commuting and taking lunch breaks. What I ask myself when considering a large book is what the purpose and context might be when reading it. There’s no way I’d attempt a doorstopper on a serious subject during lunch-breaks. The time available wouldn’t do it justice. Also, I was in a retail job when reading The Goldfinch, so I came off my shift in a dazed condition. My colleagues in the staff-room reading corner all seemed to read crime fiction, which I don’t bother with because it has virtually no demands. I’ve yet to figure out what circumstances might help with reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Large novels have a rather threatening presence.

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  3. Lucy says:

    ‘The Goldfinch’ was the most unfinished kindle book of last year, which really surprised me, as I read this book quite quickly, as essentially I was worried about Theo and needed him to be alright. It’s also one of those books that everyone I have recommended it to has enjoyed it, and wanted to talk about it, really didn’t feel that long at all. There are 150 page books out there that have felt waaaay longer.

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    • Jeff says:

      I can’t speak for those who didn’t finish, but without any identifiable central point or conceit, I found myself wondering what the difference is between continuing with a novel because its characters are interesting, and watching a soap opera?
      I stuck with it because the details and messiness to the lives depicted was aesthetically pleasing. The summation about that messiness was a relief, if philosophically thin and a bit tacked on hurriedly at the end.
      The length would have been more understandable if there was a bit more discussion, here and there, of the quality shown in the extract I’ve reproduced here. It would have helped to anchor the endless detail in something. I groaned at how quickly occasional discussions on the painting returned to the storyline. Lost opportunities to keep readers focused on why the book is, for the duration, more important than life. Shades of Knausgaard there.
      This all aside, I’d still recommend it. I read in during my work commuting and lunch-breaks. There’s room in anyone’s reading for aesthetics that don’t place too many demands.
      As for 150 page books that are too long, I’m slogging my way through Sartre’s autobiographical piece, Words. My largest work at uni was on his thought on literature and ethics. Stimulating and clear (if dogmatic). Such an extraordinary public life. Yet his private self-portrait makes me glaze over.

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      • Lucy says:

        Oh year, Knausgaard, his second book is still look at me. I can see why some people so find the detail hypnotic, in both Goldfinch and Knausgaard, but it’s definitely more exhausting in Knausgaard. I was quite interested to read how Tartt is actually very Catholic, and the ending is about finding faith in something, but that she doesn’t speak it’s name, which I’m very glad of.

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  4. Letizia says:

    Like you, I was drawn to the book after hearing so many people mention it. And like you, I thought it could have been editing down considerably. Unfortunately, this was one of the few books I just couldn’t get through. I was bored after a hundred pages and despite sticking with it for more than 3/4th of the book, I just decided to move on to another book. Her first book was catchy (a good holiday read if you haven’t read it).
    p.s. I’m fascinated that Palin’s books are a staple in a used bookstore. Always curious to hear what is and what isn’t (I like his books, I was just curious to know that).

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    • Jeff says:

      Himalaya comes up regularly in the 2 shops I volunteer in. Palin and Bryson rather crowd out a lot of travel writing. There are some authors who get their own section sometimes just to use a bit of topmost shelf space: Grisham, McCall Smith, Atwood, Binchy, and most charity shops have piles of crime titles by the same authors out back because the British crime novel public sticks mostly to the same few authors. Unadventurous or loyal? You be the judge!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarah says:

    I’ve decided that I will read this at some point, although I’d vowed never to read another Donna Tartt novel after the dried up husk that was ‘The Little Friend’. Clearly, Tartt had trouble following on from the huge success of ‘The Secret History’, which was brilliant. However, difficult second novel syndrome or not, there is no excuse for poor editing. It seems to me that Donna Tartt’s sudden mega-stardom caused a certain tiptoeing around her writing by editors fiddling with sewing scissors when actually what was needed was a lawn-mower – a ride-on lawn-mower.
    It was the same with Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. The wordcount was so desperately in need of a cull, but who was brave enough to step up to the messiah who had given us ‘The Corrections’, tap him on the shoulder and suggest more than a tweak to his latest offering? No-one.
    It sounds like the fear of editing is still very much in evidence, but from the reviews I’ve read, maybe there’s a good novel under there somewhere, after all. I’ll stick it on the list!

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    • Jeff says:

      Oh gosh, I couldn’t really say that anyone with previous should or shouldn’t. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s between demanding and undemanding, so it can fit certain reading contexts well. I suppose it depends on how you’d feel about reading an awful lot of arbitrary detail about characters’ lives only to be told that you might not read too much into that detail. An argument like this will affirm people with liberal, leftist middle-class biases. But I mean, that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s not exactly illegal.

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    • Jeff says:

      Do you think it’s just about lax editing? Is it possible when handling a large text to foresee how large expanses of detail will be responded to? I’m coming to what seems to be the end of selecting texts for someone to publish their book (which is a lot of fun, but …), and I feel that my role is likely to sit within the roles of others, and that nobody has overall say-so because nobody has overall foresight. To suggest that people cower in front of an author’s reputation surely ignores that author’s fragilities? I don’t know. I’m just guessing here! I’d imagine the politics of publishing are usually complex and singular.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah says:

        I hear ya! But I do wonder why so many successful authors’ subsequent novels are unnecessarily flabby. If it’s not lax editing caused by a little too much reverence, do you think the fault lies with the authors? Based on the success of earlier work, do they resist having their work edited? I’m not sure. I’d imagine success must be problematic to future work. The luxury of grafting away at the coalface of writing – in solitude – would feel more ‘rabbit in the headlights’ if you know there’s an expectant audience. Also, it doesn’t necessarily follow that success will increase an author’s confidence if the proliferation of ‘difficult second novels’ is anything to go by! Hmm, I need to do more chin-stroking about this I think. 🙂

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        • Jeff says:

          The best answer is to suggest which sections should go or be reduced and why. While us book bloggers criticise books for their flabbiness, we’re not always that specific. I found a lot of the domestic scenes added little to the The Goldfinch. I’m thinking here of the workshop and the later scenes with Kitty and her family. Then there were the opening events and Theo’s initial period of resettlement. These were over-described for what they needed to do. As for authors in general, I can see how it’s possible that they get hard to manage. And they’ll be resistant, as a book progresses, to cutting parts from it that have become interwoven enough to entail masses of knock-on changes. They’d have to consider the ends. You’d have to second guess which parts the readers will find too long. Not to mention balancing this with whether a book should be frictionless. Being resistant to reading is often touted as a virtue that makes literature serious. Or do you think this is just part of a mysticism that’s there to build myths around authors?
          I didn’t find the bloat too problematic with The Goldfinch. It’s semi-demanding and entertaining, so it flows. It’s just that I’ve got other books to get to.

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  6. I also think the beginning starts off with a bang in the first 100 pages or so, but then there’s this big chunk (the majority of it) where I thought bits were unnecessary and way too long. The pace I tasted at the beginning of the book ignites again when all the violence uproars again. Violence mixed with the fear/anxiety of the characters propel the novel. But fear/anxiety alone doesn’t push it as fast (ie. the heated anger in Vegas, with his fiance, etc.).

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    • Jeff says:

      I wasn’t bothered by the changes in pace. I know what you mean about how it picks up late-on, and it’s got a certain excitement, and it also relates to the painting, but to what end? Those passages reduce the painting to an expensive commodity fought over like any other. This reduces it to an exchangeable good whose value is dictated by art markets. This does, of course, feed back into the idea that there are narratives that surround artworks, but not in terms that consider the individuality of that artwork – all the late scenes could have been over ANY artwork. What I would have liked was more opportunity to explore what that specific artwork could mean. More action would have added nothing to this.
      It have been good if the novel returned regularly to the painting. Interestingly, Martin Amis does this return to subject in his novel Money, however, as my forthcoming review whinges, he’s crass when he does. Another subject, another whinge.

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  7. Ste J says:

    Why is Himalaya always in stock, it’s a keeper that one full of vibrancy, colour and a plethora of fascinating culture. I haven’t read any of Tartt and I can’t help feeling that books that win prizes should be viewed with suspicion but then again that is just my badly reasoned and probably hypocritical judgement.

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    • Jeff says:

      Palin and Bryson do a good line in ‘reasonable chaps abroad’.
      I should think that juries for prizes discuss their shortlists with public debate (and suspicion) in mind. The idea of prizes is probably to give books presence in a cultural landscape that’s competitive. Yet for all that supposedly democratic good intention, most prizes are aimed at a readership that’s middle-class, well off, highly educated, and let’s face it, pretty narrow. The Goldfinch seems just the kind of winner that gets the goat of many in that demographic because it’s an easy read. Not a sprawling sentence nor invented vocab in sight. My gosh, of all the evildoing that can befall us!

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      • Ste J says:

        Before I pick up such a book as are listed in awards i tend to try and research the judges, to find out if they have any reasons outside of the enjoyment of the book for picking certain ones. Either that or I sit back and see what my fellow bloggers make of them, my suspicion of books seems to be greater these days. There does seem an obsessions with the more literary, which I must admit I prefer but then again I embraced Crabs on the Rampage so I’m hardly one for being pigeonholed.

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        • Jeff says:

          Not sure Crabs on the Rampage looks my thing, though I was into horror in my twenties, getting through a lot of Herbert and a bit of King. And The Toxic Avenger is a classy film in its own way. You do more research into awards than I do. I pick up a podcast or two for the Booker Prize. You get to hear readings, so it gives an overview, as well as a warning. But it’s also good to identify the candidates when they appear in secondhand stock. I put the last winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in the window display recently. Not all volunteers are aware of what they’re handling. Me included, if I’m honest!

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          • Ste J says:

            I think part of it is a saturation of awards that make it more confusing as to what is actually meaningful. I do love a good cheesy horror, I still can’t make up my mind if it is a parody or a straight up bad horror book, as I term it B-lit, it reads like a bad film as well. King is always a good read between substantial books or just when I feel like consuming a lot of pages quickly, he does have a certain readability about him that is sometimes perplexing to me.

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          • Jeff says:

            The saturation of awards might reflect a drop in audience share. That’s what happened to boxing once the audience figures dropped after the high water mark in the late 1970s – more and different belts staking some claim to representing ‘world champion’. Maybe there are so many awards representing contemporary literature because its readership is dwindling (not to mention its supply growing)?

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          • Ste J says:

            The more awards there are, the less they matter, paring it down and bringing the best to the masses will surely be better than praising any old average work. Stil as long as bloggers keep sharing their love of books that is the way forward in my biased opinion.

            Liked by 1 person

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