Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is a novel that is crafted like a classic bildungsroman—a coming of age story where a young man’s life is thrown off its set path by a freak incident, and in a new and unfamiliar world filled with crime and opulence, he grows into his own. And like a classic nineteenth-century novel, the book sweeps over large portions of time, skipping several years between chapters, but suddenly zooming into the details of a necklace, the finish on an antique table, a long conversation with a returned friend. The pacing is often frustrating—these sudden jumps in time followed by long periods of languishing—and the protagonist, with his brooding amorality, is far from likeable.
I am not the most loyal reader, and I often abandon books midway to pick up others, or I read a few pages on a lazy Sunday morning and put the book back on a teetering pile to never glance at those pages again. What then was it about this book that kept bringing me back—that at the end of some other entirely different book, I would wonder what indeed had happened to Theodore Decker? And like picking up a conversation with an old friend, I would open the book again at the postcard which I used as a bookmark, and away we would go. A hundred pages later, rather predictably, I would abandon the protagonist in his latest drug haze and wander away only to return months later.
This is a flawed book, and there are many critics who are more than ready to point out its many weaknesses—its lack of literary beauty, its plot’s reliance of coincidences—but for me, what jarred the most was its lack of soul. Or rather, where the book did have soul—the friendship between Theo and Boris, Hobby’s love for antiques—it seemed to be hidden under layers and layers of cold sophistication and the need for the book to be about more. The author was trying so hard to make a grand philosophical statement about the importance of objects in our lives, what it means for art to conquer time, that she had missed the warmth that pulses at the centre of the book. At its core runs a story of an intense male friendship—two young men who are completely unlike each other, but also alike in that they have no one but each other—and what brought me back to the book was not the protagonist, but his friend, Boris, who is as untrustworthy as he is generous. (It is only later that I realised what a cliche this character is—the Dostovesky-reading drug dealer—and perhaps it is credit to this book that it never struck me while reading it.) But there is so much in between about antiques and unhappy rich families, that those few scenes seem windows of sunlight in an otherwise cold and sterile gallery.
The book goes on far longer than it should—as though the author could not quite figure out that the book had already ended and she goes on trying to explain what the book was really about. It feels like you’re watching a movie where you’re more interested in the side-character, your eye drifting to the blurred corner where something infinitely more interesting is happening. If only the book was a little less consumed by its own greatness, if only it could have been a little more honest, it would have been a truly great book. The prose is for the most part overwrought, though some scenes are astoundingly lyrical, and one is left with the feeling that if only the author had tried to write a story and not a masterpiece, a book closer to the painting it is named after may have emerged. The goldfinch in the painting is described as small and vulnerable, yet unshrinking from the world. The book, in contrast, is imposing and ambitious.
My feelings about books often change in the two weeks after I read them—I find myself tripping over ideas from a book that I found immensely frustrating to read, or I would entirely forget about an enjoyable book and slip into the next one without so much as a backward glance. Goldfinch, for me, was a book that still impresses me for what it set it out to do. It is beautifully plotted and it captures a certain feel of New York—Central Park in Fall, Manhattan at night, a conversation between Russian men at the back of a limo. I am fond of this book for the ambition of its initial premise, the ingenuity of its plot. Where it works, it works extraordinarily well. The description of carefully observed body language, the disorientation in moments of violence, the wired ecstasy of a drug high in the Las Vegas desert. It kept me returning to it over six months though I was constantly distracted by other books; it kept me wondering about how things really turned out for Theo; it made me care about the fate of this painting of a small bird. But the book never rises beyond evoking curiosity to inspire any empathy or joy; it offers no observation that will strike you in the middle of a conversation a month later; it is not the sort of book that will wedge itself in the corner of your eye and change the way you see the world forever. It is a book that is structurally beautiful but, ultimately, hollow inside.