Finally– I finally finished the 771 page novel that is The Goldfinch. I have never taken so long to finish a book before. Not just because this book was soooo long. I have read many long books, but this book had to be read slowly, absorbed. I do admit that it was not really a page-turner. This is an understatement. In fact, every time I had to put it down, I had no trouble at all. I actually looked forward to putting it down and had a hard time picking it back up. It’s not that it was a bad book, or even boring. Actually, I found it very profound and am glad I read it. But let me start at the beginning.
This book is about a boy named Theo with an absent and alcoholic father and a loving mother, who is trying to raise him on her own. While visiting an art museum, he and his mother get caught in a terrorist bombing. His mother is killed, he survives, and through a series of seemingly providential events, he meets an old man and his grand-daughter, steals a famous small painting called “The Goldfinch” in a confused and concussed stupor, and manages to find his way out of the carnage unnoticed in the chaos.
Theo experiences and suffers numerous things in the proceeding years, but always manages to hold on to the painting, maniacally attached to the famous and priceless work of art. He soon realizes what he’s done, but is both unwilling and afraid to give it up. The rest of the very lengthy book chronicles his life, living with post-traumatic stress, guilt, and fear, recording one bad decision after another in an almost ridiculous hyperbole.
As a reader I became somewhat fond of Theo, but who wouldn’t be after spending 771 pages with him? Still, after 771 pages, I would think I would be more attached to him. The characterization in this story is all right, but nothing to really speak of. The prose are eloquent, the descriptions striking and pictorial. The plot is wonderful. So what’s wrong with this book? Why did I look forward to putting it down and dread picking it up? Is it bleak, disheartening, cynical? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is, but that’s not it either. This book is dragged down with the weight of details, details, details. Endless details. I swear that this author takes thirty pages to say what most people could say in five. And I’m sorry; I don’t care how beautifully it is said, there comes a time when you just have to get to the point. Sometimes I would find myself dying to find out how something turned out or what someone said, but by the time five, ten, or fifteen pages went by, I would forget what it was I was waiting for. I was tempted over and over again to skim it, but a force seemed to hold me back, telling me that in all these details there had to be a purpose, a message that I was sure to miss if I half-heartedly scanned the pages.
It finally came. I must say the profundity of the last thirty pages made enduring the whole over-written story worth the reading. But even the ending was at least fifteen pages too long. When I finally achieved the nirvana of the story’s thematic message, I floated on this cloud for only a page or two when the repetitive, albeit beautiful, drone numbed my mind once again.
Still I marvel at the incredible perspicacity of Tartt. She paints this crazy, chaotic, hyperbolic story with its deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable protagonist, into an Impressionistic masterpiece that can only be fully understood as one backs up and takes in the whole picture, the whole really long, laboriously large picture. (Forgive the “artsy” metaphor-no pun intended.) And the irony of the depressing events Theo endures finally coming to a usable point through the philosophical ruminations of Theo’s drug-addled, abused, trouble-attracting, poor-decision-making childhood friend, Boris, was just superb. In one sublime page, the entire seemingly pointless suffering all seems to make sense. The book should have ended there, but no, Tartt needs to go on and on and on, almost condescendingly assuming that we didn’t quite “get it” yet. The book could easily have been done, and done well, in my humble opinion, in half the pages. One must ask, “What was her editor thinking?” Isn’t it the editor’s job to demand cuts where extraneous material invades? I can only assume that her editor must have been infatuated with Tartt’s beautifully descriptive and intelligent writing style.
The Goldfinch evokes such ambivalence in me that I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I will say this: I am so grateful that I read it, but I will never be reading it again. I am giving it 4 out 5 stars–5 stars for its deeply meaningful insight, but subtracting one for making me suffer so long to receive it.–Christina Knowles