Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Goldfinch

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Goldfinch (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

Dickensian in its sweep, The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt's unbelievably dense third novel, and it was badly in need of an editor. It is 780 pages long, and a full ten percent of them could have been excised had one character, Boris, actually been written to directly answer the questions that the narrator, Theo, asks of him. By the end of the book, Tartt had trained me, once Theo asks him "Where have you been?", to skip ahead a page and a half, past the broken conversations and evasions common to their friendship.

Another twenty percent could have been chopped away had somebody urged Tartt to focus on the plot and quit describing everything. Her prose isn't vivid enough to keep me interested in the characters, and while a story that takes place over the course of a decade isn't likely to have a great structural need to get to the point, I got lost countless times, unable to understand why I was reading it. There's a pretty good 500-page novel here, in other words, though not a great one. I share with the late Roger Ebert a disdain for stories that will end at any point when a character stops lying. This novel could have been a terrific novella, ending on page 144, had Theo just returned the damn painting to his future custodian and business partner James "Hobie" Hobart, actually.

The story begins with Theo, a fifteen year-old Manhattanite, visiting an art museum with his mother on the day that it is bombed. His eye is caught by a gorgeous girl his age, there with a much older guardian. He comes to after the first responders have been ordered to evacuate when a second device is found, leaving him in the eerie, silent ruins with the guardian, who had just - really bad timing - stolen Carel Fabritius's 1654 painting The Goldfinch and had it under his coat. The old man gives the small painting to the wounded Theo, who makes it home in a panic and hides the painting away to await his mother. She never makes it back. She was killed in the blast.

It's a hell of a great start for a book, and there's an epic element to its globetrotting jaunt as Theo moves from a foster family to Las Vegas and back to New York, leading to an exchange of gunfire in Amsterdam ten years after the theft. There's even an unbelievably terrific twist when Boris, his friend in Vegas and with whom he descended into drugs and delinquency, returns to the story many years later with a quite stunning explanation for his behavior on Theo's last night in Vegas that turns everything on its head. I liked it in spite of my dislike for Theo, who dances past one terrible decision after another for years, and with whom I did not sympathize at all. But I didn't like it very much in the end, and can't really recommend something with so many pages that I ended up breezing past in search of the plot. I know this book's a critical darling right now, but sadly, not recommended.

(The Bookshelf will be taking a couple of weeks off for vacation and return with a new post on the 19th. See you then!)

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