Yes, The Goldfinch is Overrated… But Why?

The Goldfinch is overrated - but why?I’m not really qualified to decide what does and doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer. But I’m of the somewhat strong opinion that “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt shouldn’t have made the cut.

Let me break down this epic journey in rambling, poorly plotted, erratically written, Pulitzer-worthy material. And then let me explain why it spells trouble for the book industry if “The Goldfinch” is what we consider great literature. I’d warn you that there are some minor spoilers ahead, kind of, although, since Tartt fails to put anything at stake or develop any meaningful characters (aside from one), there’s really nothing to spoil. You read the book for the writing, put it down, and say: “Huh. Well, guess it’s over.”

An Art History Major’s Paradise

Let’s get one thing straight: “The Goldfinch” is about a painting. Kind of. It’s also about the thrilling world of antique refurbishment, with a decided focus on furniture. Are you at the edge of your seat yet? Don’t worry, you won’t be.

The main character, “Theo” – a narrator so bland and passive that you often forget his name – starts his life off in a modest brownstone on the Upper West Side. He likes art and his mother and video games and playing chess, like any normal thirteen year-old in 2014. Then, his mother dies in a terrorist attack that is never explained or affects the world in any noticeable way for the months following.

Because, you know, the terrorist attack was just a Plot Device. So don’t worry about why a primary target was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hit them where it hurts, I guess was the anonymous terrorist group’s tactic. You know how emotionally rocked the American public would be if we lost paintings from European artists.

It’s important to to note this was Tartt’s first novel in 11 years. So yes, the idea probably germinated when terrorist attacks were in vogue. For some reason, she decided this would be a great way to start a plot with no relation to terrorism or politics or America.

Theo survives the attack, but not before hoisting off a painting that he manages to carry back to his house, despite the general difficulty of having a concussion and hallucinating. That would be “The Goldfinch.” Pay attention to the description of it, because you won’t see much of it – or read about it that often – for about 500 more pages. As is the usual course of action for objects so important that the book is titled after them.

A Young Adult Trap

At this point, it should be apparent to any reader that “The Goldfinch” isn’t some literary gem full of revelations about life and human nature. It’s a young adult adventure where a parent is fortunately killed off at the beginning so the author doesn’t have to come up with a more creative way of dealing with more characters.

Theo goes to live with a bunch of other rich people. He stays there for a while. He meets an antique dealer because there was an antique dealer killed in the anonymous terrorist attack on a museum and the antique dealer gave him some stuff. After a while, he goes to Las Vegas and meets one memorable character, a Russian delinquent named Boris.

Thus, we’re treated to the first of what probably amounts to around 200 pages of Theo being drunk or high. If you like reading about drunk teenagers running around, completely free of traditional restraints such as parents or plots, this is great. If you keep waiting for their actions or the characters around them to tie back to anything that happened in the first section of the book, you’ll be disappointed.

But you keep reading, because the writing is good. Sometimes, it’s terribly, painfully clumsy. There are instances where Tartt will try six back-to-back metaphors that do not form a cohesive picture or have a recognizable cadence. I assume this was when she was writing the first draft and wanted to try a bunch of things out. Unfortunately, we’re left with the dizzying result.

Escape to New York 

You turn pages. Las Vegas keeps going. Once you start to seriously wonder when Theo will inevitably go back to New York to meet up with the other set of characters you don’t care about, he does. And “The Goldfinch” takes a turn for the worse.

Tartt’s biggest mistake in the book, I think, is pivoting and shooting for a time lapse. A teen with a complex and troubled past, who’s developing some serious problems, abruptly becomes a 26-year old man who is not noticeably any different. Boris comes back and he has tragically grown up into a stereotype (nihilism, meet Russia. Russia, meet nihilism).

One of the more painful, indecisive metaphorical ramblings in "The Goldfinch." In typically inconsistent fashion Theo is also cheating on this woman.
One of the more painfully indecisive metaphorical ramblings in “The Goldfinch.” In typically inconsistent fashion, Theo is also cheating on this woman.

The last third of the book introduces a number of interchangeable new characters. Theo, who has spent his entire adult life (and much of his childhood) worrying about how to return “The Goldfinch” to the MET, embarks on an epic journey to Amsterdam to retrieve it for himself.

To cap it all off, we’re treated to a torrential downpour of exposition at the conclusion. Just to make sure the reader picked up on the one solid theme in the book. Which is that art is good and it makes people feel good.

Writing About Great Art =/ Great Art

I wouldn’t actually have been nearly as critical if “The Goldfinch” hadn’t won the Pulitzer, but an award as prestigious as that warrants a little additional scrutiny. The rotten core of the book is this: it claims to be contemporary fiction.

Throughout the book, there is one reference to Facebook. People read lots of newspapers. There’s no mention of modern politics, dwindling attention spans, new partisan divides, income inequality, climate change, globalism, corporatism or anything else. I would argue that “The Hunger Games” has done far more to discuss and analyze contemporary issues than the conceited, wet, mossy bundle of elitism and emotion that is “The Goldfinch.”

“The Goldfinch” is a time capsule. It’s an attempt at art writing about art, all other “contemporary” developments and events be damned.

All of this is forgivable without the Pulitzer. But with that award, the committee seems to confirm that they don’t want fiction to transgress into real world issues, either. Like Tartt, they appear to believe that, in 2014, the impact of the Internet, social media, smartphones, climate change, partisanship, income inequality, or anything else that are real issues begging for attention are secondary to a long-winded thesis on why art from the nineteenth century is great.

This is the only plausible explanation for why we have a Pulitzer-award winning novel about paintings and antiques and literally nothing else, with characters that rise from the depths and pop like air bubbles.

The goal of a novel that wins the Pulitzer should be to make readers think, to take them out of their comfort zones. Instead, we have a comfortably middle class narrative with comfortably middle class values, with a tacked-on thriller element at the end that is still somehow about art.

“The Goldfinch” is a preconceived picture of what society should value, purporting to be a painting of the present, written for the majority audience of elite book readers today: people who want to read a story set in a time – and with the values – they believe should be most important.

Anything that remotely smacks of actual issues that are occupying people’s attention just gets in the way of this artistic vision.

Like so many objects in the book, like so many things Theo sells to people in his exhilarating occupation as antique furniture salesman, “The Goldfinch” is an imitation of antiquated great art.

And it’s too long.

Photo Credit: Automania via Compfight cc

8 thoughts on “Yes, The Goldfinch is Overrated… But Why?

  1. I’m glad you wrote this, Blaise. I thought I was the only one railing about that book winning the Pulitzer, especially following a year in which the committee decided there was no worthy book.

    Frankly, I think Tartt is one of those fortunate writers whose name sells the books, not the actual content. I don’t know how she did it, but I guess someone wins the lottery every time there’s a drawing. In the literary success lottery, she got lucky.

    You’re a bigger man than me, though. At least you read the book!


    2. Thanks for reading, Kevin! I think you’re right – Tartt had an established brand already, so it was a lot easier for her to get noticed. I just wonder if this book – and “Swamplandia!” – are indicative of what’s going to get awarded in the future: easily sold, vaguely literary, commercially bent fiction.

  2. I adored Donna Tartt’s first novel, THE SECRET HISTORY. I read half of her second book, admiring the sentences but burning out after a couple of hundred pages where NOTHING HAPPENED. I have this book sitting at the bottom of the pile of books on my nightstand. After reading this, it may stay there. It’s nice and thick, anyway. Thanks for a thoughtful, clever, very funny review that really made me think about the future of fiction.

    1. Holly, my Tartt-reading experience is somewhat similar to yours: I liked “The Secret History” a lot – although I was a bit disappointed in the pessimistic, flat and underwhelming conclusion. But I was full of anticipation when her second novel “The Little Friend” came out and I bought the book without even reading any reviews. And I was captivated at first, because Tartt certainly does know how to roap you in. But then the narrative went on and on and on….and on…until it finally dawned on me that the author had no intention at all to go anywhere with her story and answer any questions she had set up earlier. Tartt is able to craft sublime sentences and captivate her audience with scenes of apparent truth, debth and beauty. But she simply cannot sustain a decently constructed plot. This underlying problem could already be spotted in her first novel, but she managed (barely) to get it right. But I was so flummoxed by “The Little Friend” that I decided to do a lot of research before ever investing money, time and thoughts in another book of this author.
      Times have changed since then and I now own a wonderful little gadget which is called “e-reader”. It is possible now to download and read an excerpt in order to find out if a book may be for you or not. And although “The Goldfinch” was praised by many reviewers I was very sure after reading the excerpt and some of the more critical reviews that Tartt still has issues with creating compelling characters and setting up and following through with a meaningful narrative into which I would like to invest my time.
      For those who love “The Goldfinch” – great! But, thank you, it’s not for me!

  3. I plodded through 800 pages of this book, and yet was on the hook enough to keep going while raising my head randomly to exclaim, “Where was her editor!???” I thought the story had a decent possibility but could have been at least 400 pages shorter.
    400 pages.
    And this is our Pulitzer.
    From my review on Goodreads: “I wanted to give this 5 stars, I really did… For the weaving of words, for the textured drama, for imagery that will stay with me forever, for vivid characters whose lives I enjoyed at times. But it was too long, self indulgently repetitive.”
    Self indulgent is my summary of it. No one has taken a red pen to that woman’s work in way too long, and now they never will.
    Oh well, I can still vote with my wallet and not read another one.
    Toby Neal

  4. So glad that I was not crazy to not enjoy the book. I was very offended by Michiko Kakutani calling it a ” Dickensian novel.” Really Mr Kakutani? Please do not insult Charles Dickens and his amazing prose.

    1. I agree, that the comparison with Charles Dickens, whom I love, was way off and very misleading! Dickens can be rambling, but he was able to create the most wonderful and memorable characters, and he always managed to get a sprawling plot back on track in the end and wrap up his stories in a satisfying way. The same cannot be said about Tartt’s characters and narratives. Even her IMO best book “The Secret History” doesn’t feature truly memorable and compelling characters although the story itself is interesting and well written.
      To me it seems that Donna Tartt was always overrated because of the undeniable beauty of her sentences and scenes which came across as very intelligent and meaningful. Her writing keeps the reader going and going and going – until it becomes very clear that the empress has no cloathes.

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