Six hundred pages into The Goldfinch, I realised that reading Donna Tartt is like childbirth. That’s why she only brings novels out every ten years. Time polishes your memory. You yearn for the scintillating prose, the cute turn of phrase, the scholarly tone. You forget the excruciating agony and the fervent wish that it would all be over. You forget swearing to whatever deity is listening that you will never do this again.
So here I am (again).
It’s always tricky reviewing books by glittering literati, particularly when you didn’t like the book. The Goldfinch has nearly 1,000 5* reviews on Amazon, so people clearly enjoyed it. I’m left wondering what I missed, because it is probably the worst book I’ve read in the last 10 years.
To be clear, it’s neither the most shambolic or poorly written. There’s no hackneyed dialogue and cardboard characters; heaven knows I’ve read a few of those over the years. There are some beautiful passages in the Goldfinch, but it is so overblown. It’s a monumentally massive read for such little reward. It barely thrills, it certainly doesn’t enlighten. It revealed nothing to me about the human condition, which I consider to be one of the most important jobs of a work of ‘Great American Fiction’. The two messages I took home from the book, is that ‘life is shit’ and ‘ great art outlives its creators’. Hardly earth-shattering revelations.
The book is detail heavy, not in itself an issue. It’s hard to imagine that all the subjects covered would appeal to all readers, unless you were a master cabinet maker with an keen interest in recreational drugs, but nevertheless the novel’s richness is part of its appeal. The problem for me is that the detail is pointless. The story that punctuates throughout is flimsy and predicated on coincidence; something I really hate. The final third of the novel is particularly weak. There is far too much wallowing in self-pity, several horrible telegraphed deus ex machina (or perhaps the opposite of – ‘No really, you must give me your passport – nothing bad will happen to it. I’ll lock it in the glovebox. See NOTHING BAD CAN POSSIBLY HAPPEN.’ I paraphrase, obviously). The final ten pages are hideous pseudo-philosophy, included, I assume, to give the book some heft, but actually make the lead character sound like he’s trying to crawl up his own arse.
I am left to question the point of this novel. I don’t understand how somebody could publish it as is, let alone pontificate about its brilliance. Perhaps the kerching of cash registers drowned out the dissenters at Little Brown. Perhaps many readers and reviewers were too embarrassed to say they didn’t like it; compelled to like it because it was written by the author of the hallowed Secret History. Perhaps it’s just shit. Perhaps this is a really good novel that I have failed to understand. Maybe, but probably not. There are some gold ears of corn here, but there is significantly more chaff.