31 January 2014

The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, is one of my favorite books ever.  I've read it probably a dozen times, and as I type this, I realize that I am suddenly gripped by the urge to read it again.  I was sorely disappointed in her second attempt, The Little Friend, to the point where I didn't even finish reading it.  As such, I was somewhat guarded in my excitement leading up to the release of this, her third novel.

The Goldfinch is about the adolescence and early adulthood of a boy orphaned by an act of terrorism (I'm giving away some of the plot here, but not so much that it'll be any less devastating when you read it for yourself).  There are guardianship woes and frequent changes in setting, enough so that you don't get bored by the surroundings, so to speak.  His story becomes entwined with that of the title piece of artwork, and mayhem ensues.

On Goodreads, I rated it 3 stars, but as I said there (and the rest of this is taken directly from my Goodreads review), I think that if half stars could be awarded, I'd have rated this book 3.5, which is to say that it's very good but could have benefited from a more active editor.  There are pages upon pages upon pages that are so perfectly written that I want to read them again and again.  And then there are the last 100 pages, which I think could have been condensed into perhaps ten.

Tartt is gifted with description.  I felt the dampness and old money of New York just as vividly as I felt the glaring, blinding light and heat of Las Vegas.  I enjoy that that action is told from the perspective of someone whom we can't really trust because he has been, essentially, plastered since adolescence, first with grief, then culture shock, then drugs and alcohol.  I appreciate Tartt's indulgence of this perspective and that she's skilled at changing the facts just when I think I've grasped hold of them.

She's just as gifted with pacing and detail, self-indulgent allusions notwithstanding.  Tartt is well-read, exceedingly clever, and quite smart...and she really, really needs for her readers to know that, I think.  The novel is littered with quintessentially English exclamations like, "Well done, you!" and references to "tinned crabmeat" and "pyjamas," which reveal what I believe to be the author's embarrassment of or uneasiness with her Mississippi upbringing.  There were times when I wanted, truly, to throttle her and say, "Listen, Donna, we both know this isn't how Americans -- let alone Southerners -- speak or spell, regardless of their wealth, education, or social position."

More often, though, I felt a kinship borne primarily of our Southern-ness and apparently shared obsession with the BBC.  After all, how would I know that Brits use "tinned" in place of our more colloquial "canned" if I didn't spend a great deal of time reading P.G. Wodehouse, watching "Fawlty Towers," and inhaling everything Julian Fellowes produces, both on screen and in print.

In short, this novel falls somewhere between The Secret History and The Little Friend, though considerably closer to the former than the latter.

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