Today I finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I’m dumbstruck. I figure I’ll try to jot down some initial thoughts on this massive bildungsroman—a novel that, unlike other epic attempts like Franzen’s Freedom, focuses on the interior lives of its characters instead of being “of the times.” This novel isn’t the Great American Novel because its themes are universal—the misery of loss, helplessness in the face of the whims and cruel vagaries of life, emotional abuse, depression and obsession, and the deep-seated kernel of hope that seems hard-wired into most humans’ DNA.
But I warn you, what I write here will likely be a jumbled grasping at the few thoughts I manage to snag from the whirling cyclone of things happening in my head right now. I mean, I finished this bad boy just a few hours ago…
But make no mistake—The Goldfinch isn’t some quiet, flowery description of emotions; it is at times a thriller, at times a romance, at times a fascinating character study, and at other times an absorbing lesson in art history and antiques. Donna Tartt—whose first novel, The Secret History, remains one of my all-time favorites—knows how to tell a damn story. There is momentum. The book never grows stale or dull or over-indulgent in its descriptive prose, except maybe a bit in the final 50 pages (and even then, you’re so hooked you don’t balk at Tartt’s slight indulgence). It covers about 15 years or so, and it spends time in NYC and Las Vegas and Europe.
The word Dickensian comes to mind—specifically Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. It tells the story of one life—the life of Theo Decker, a life besieged by endless atrocities and personal horrors—more than any human should have to endure—and how he navigates his life. It’s honest. Theo isn’t a hero. He’s understandably flawed, but he’s also self-aware, unflinching in his self-criticism. Sometimes, if I were to find any faults in this superior piece of writing, Tartt lets Theo wallow too long in his own miseries, talking about his own sadness a bit too much. But again, Theo is so real—and your sympathy for him is so immediate and abiding that you forgive him (and Tartt) for sometimes letting the inner-monologue run at length.
I also loved the mix of settings. The Secret History spent almost of all of its time in a small New England college town. But The Goldfinch deftly examines the upper-class coolness of New York’s elite Upper West Side, the seediness of Las Vegas’ dusty suburbs, the down-and-out alleyways of Amsterdam, and a smattering of places in between. We see all types of people slide in and out of Theo’s story, and each one is so elegantly encapsulated by Tartt, each character—minor and major—has his or her own moment to be seen. We see everything Tartt is describing.
The book is nearly 800 pages, but I read it in a month, with the last 500 pages or so coming during this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. After I finished the book early this afternoon I found myself at Half-Price Books, strolling the aisles vaguely looking for some new book to read. But I left without buying anything, because no book I glanced at seemed worthy. Nothing seemed worth slogging through in the wake of finishing The Goldfinch. Everything else might seem like juvenile writing for awhile. That’s OK. It’s the price to pay for having consumed this masterwork.
I’m not ready to declare The Goldfinch the best book I’ve read. No, no, nothing quite that extreme. Yet. (I read Dave Egger’s new pean to Google, The Circle, recently and quickly took to Facebook upon finishing it to predict that “50 years from now people will read The Circle the way people of my generation read Vonnegut. With a few weeks distance I can firmly say that I don’t think that’ll happen 50 years from now.) And I don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment, thinking that the most recent thing is the best thing. I’ll reflect on it awhile. And in a few weeks or months, I’ll be chatting with a friend and the subject of books will come up, and they’ll ask me what my favorite book is, or something I could recommend they read. I suspect that The Goldfinch will be my answer. I suspect.
But who cares about labels? The closing moments of The Goldfinch, in fact, are an attempt to destroy labels, to find (and find contentment in) the gray area between the extremes of life. The thing that matters isn’t what is a “favorite” but what is beautiful. The Goldfinch is beautiful.