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Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

August 19, 2014

65. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Length: 784 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Started: 15 July 2014
Finished: 04 August 2014 (it didn’t actually take me three weeks of reading; I started it right before I went on vacation, and no way was I hauling this hardback around in my carry-on).

Where did it come from? Christmas gift from a friend.
Why do I have it? He thought I’d like it.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 January 2014.

A stolen painting
isn’t enough to buy one
a trouble-free life.

Summary: Thirteen-year-old Theo Dekker and his mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a bomb goes off, killing his mother (and almost everyone else) but sparing Theo. In his confusion, he winds up taking one of the small paintings from the exhibition and putting it in his bag. In the days that follow, Theo is taken in by the wealthy socialite parents of one of his friends (Theo’s own father abandoned him and his mother years before). As he is shuffled around – from the Upper West Side, to Las Vegas to live with his father, back to New York where he works as an antique furniture dealer – he clings to the painting, first as a reminder of his mother and then a guilty secret, the one thing that remains constant as his own life becomes more and more turbulent and he spins further and further out of control.

Review: I finished this book two weeks ago, and I still can’t quite decide how I feel about it. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. It definitely didn’t annoy me as much as The Secret History, so that’s something.

Objectively: it’s too long. It is self-indulgently long. Probably two hundred pages could have been trimmed without losing much of the plot or the character development. Although, to be fair, I didn’t ever notice it dragging; once I picked it up I could get into the world and keep reading with no problems. (Although, to be fair to my fairness, I did start skimming whenever Tartt would get into a swath of dense description with either no complete sentences or multiple paragraph-long run-ons.) I don’t know that I was ever really compelled to pick it up again (although neither did I dread it), but once I was reading it was easy to stay involved.

Although her descriptions are occasionally self-indulgent, Tartt really does do an excellent job of creating her world, and getting her reader’s not only into Theo’s world, but also into his head. Similarly, her characters (not just Theo) are all multi-dimensional and complex, and feel like real people that you might actually meet. Again, objectively, Theo is not really a good person – none of the characters are, not entirely – and yet I didn’t dislike him nearly as much as I did the characters from The Secret History, which I suspect has a lot to do with how much I liked (or at least didn’t dislike) this book vs. that one. (Of course, this book is told by Theo, so he’s of course going to put his own subjective spin on everything, and being in the mind of the junkie is very different from having to deal with the junkie. If Theo were someone I knew in person, I suspect I’d be annoyed with him inside of an hour.) But while I didn’t dislike him, I didn’t really sympathize with him much either – I mean, initially, with the loss of his mother, yes, but at some point, Theo’s shitty life becomes largely of his own making, and he stops being a character I could root for.

I’m also unsure how I feel about the plot. The story kind of meanders, taking a sharp left turn into art heist/thriller about 100 pages from the end. Again, it didn’t feel like dragging while I was reading it, but not a lot really happens other than Theo’s downward spiral. Or, rather, a lot of stuff happens, but it’s difficult if not impossible to pick out which of it is important stuff, and which is just stuff. And then the last few pages, feels like a lot of moralizing, and Theo drawing a lot of conclusions about his story that I didn’t really think the story had earned. I mean, as much as I like the sentiment, I certainly didn’t get “it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch” from Theo’s story until Theo told me that’s what I should have gotten from his story. And there’s the argument that all of that moralizing and summarizing and trying to make things grander and more meaningful than they are is in character with who Theo is by that point, but it still didn’t sit quite right with me.

So, overall: I really don’t know. For a book this thick that takes itself this seriously, I would have thought it would have made more of an impact on me. But it didn’t – neither good nor bad – so I’m left wondering if I’m missing something that other people are getting from this book. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Tough one. I don’t read enough contemporary fiction to make good comparisons, but if you do, or if you like Tartt’s other books, or books about drug addiction and/or art history, there will probably be something here to interest you.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Tons of them, over at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 118: “Through the dusty windows I saw Staffordshire dogs and majolica cats, dusty crystal, tarnished silver, antique chairs and settees upholstered in sallow old brocade, an elaborate faience birdcage, miniature marble obelisks atop a marble-topped pedestal table and a pair of alabaster cockatoos.” – Tin-glazed earthenware that is often richly colored and decorated, especially an earthenware of this type produced in Italy.
  • p. 147: ““Well, hello there, greetings,” said Dave the psychiatrist as he closed the door and took a seat across from me in his office: kilim rugs, shelves filled with old textbooks (Drugs and Society; Child Psychology: A Different Approach); and beige draperies that parted with a hum when you pushed a button.” – A tapestry-woven Turkish rug or other textile with geometric designs in rich, brilliant colors.
  • p. 167: ““Although, I’ll tell you, the nicest detail on that one is the tasselled splats.”” – A slat of wood, as one in the middle of a chair back.
  • p. 170: “Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks.” – a file with a curved face for filing concave surfaces.
  • p. 245: “He had ridden a camel; he had eaten witchetty grubs, played cricket, caught malaria, lived on the street in Ukraine (“but for two weeks only”), set off a stick of dynamite by himself, swum in Australian rivers infested with crocodiles.” – the wood-boring edible larva of certain Australian moths and beetles
  • p. 263: “Chlorotic, with a sunken chest, he smoked incessantly, wore cheap shirts that had grayed in the wash, drank endless cups of sugary tea.” – An iron-deficiency anemia, primarily of young women, characterized by a greenish-yellow discoloration of the skin. Also called greensickness.
  • p. 415: “Sometimes when I walked down to Canal Street for Hobie, to buy rottenstone and Venice turpentine at Pearl Paint, I ended up drifting over to Mulberry Street to a restaurant my dad had liked, not far from the E train, eight stairs down to a basement with stained Formica tables where I bought crispy scallion pancakes, spicy pork, dishes I had to point at because the menu was in Chinese.” – A soft decomposed limestone, used in powder form as a polishing material.
  • p. 433: “He had not aged well; in the old days he’d been the blondest and best-looking of the brothers, but he’d grown thick in the jaw and around the middle and his face had coarsened away from its perverse old Jungvolk beauty.” – Part of the Hitler Youth program, for boys 10 to 14.
  • p. 454: “I knew how to draw people’s attention to the extraordinary points of a piece, the hand-cut veneer, the fine patination, the honorable scars, drawing a finger down an exquisite cyma curve (which Hogarth himself had called “the line of beauty”) in order to lead the eye away from reworked bits in back, where in a strong light they might find the grain didn’t precisely match.” – either of two mouldings having a double curve, part concave and part convex. Cyma recta has the convex part nearer the wall and cyma reversa has the concave part nearer the wall.
  • p. 493: “Instead he didn’t say a word, only gazed at me with a sort of grieved fubsiness, haloed by his work lamp, tools arrayed on the walls behind him like Masonic icons.” – chubby and somewhat squat.
  • p. 520: “Fully conscious of my folly, I’d downloaded pictures of it to my computer and my phone so I could gloat upon the image in private, brushstrokes rendered digitally, a scrap of seventeenth-century sunlight compressed into dots and pixels, but the purer the color, the richer the sense of impasto, the more I hungered for the thing itself, the irreplaceable, glorious, light-rinsed object.” – The application of thick layers of pigment to a canvas or other surface in painting.
  • p. 578: ““I agree. And here –” tracing midair the ugly arc where an over-eager cleaning had scrubbed the paint down to the scumbling.” – To soften the colors or outlines of (a painting or drawing) by covering with a film of opaque or semiopaque color or by rubbing.
  • p. 582: “As they consulted urgently in German, more noise and movement behind the Amiens, which billowed out suddenly: faded blossoms, a fête champêtre, prodigal nymphs disporting themselves amidst fountain and vine.” – a garden party, picnic, or similar outdoor entertainment.
  • p. 582: “From the floor, one of the dirty bundles – swollen red face just visible from under the tapestry – inquired of me in a sleepy gallant voice: “He’s a margrave, my dear, did you know that?”” – a German nobleman ranking above a count.
  • p. 590: “His crinkly brown hair was still long; he was still dressed in the same clothes that rich stoner kids had worn at our school (Tretorns, hugh thick-knit Irish sweater without an overcoat) and he had a bag from the wine shop looped over his arm, the same wine shop where Kitsey and I sometimes ran together for a bottle.” – A brand of shoes (probably referring to the canvas sneakers)
  • p. 616: ““My audition –” large gulp of wine — “pre-college orchestra at Juilliard, my solfège teacher had told me I might get second chair but if I played really well, I might have a shot at first.”” – a voice exercise; singing scales or runs to the same syllable.
  • p. 646: “It was topaz, eighteenth century, a necklace for a fairy queen, girandôle with a diamond bow and huge, clear, honey-colored stones: just the shade of her eyes.” – an earring or pendant having a central gem surrounded by smaller ones.
  • p. 647: “What I somehow hadn’t expected was a city prinked-up for Christmas: fir boughs and tinsel, starburst ornaments in the shop windows and a cold stiff wind coming off the canals and fires and festival stalls and people on bicycles, toys and color and candy, holiday confusion and gleam.” – To adorn (oneself) in a showy manner.
  • p. 728: “I’d ordered the “Festive Champagne Breakfast” which included a split of champagne, truffled eggs and caviar, a fruit salad, a plate of smoked salmon, a slab of pâté, and half a dozen dishes of sauce, cornichons, capers, condiments, and pickled onions.” – A bottle of an alcoholic or carbonated beverage half the usual size.
  • p. 750: ““Only two of the legs are original, you stood there and watched me reeding the new ones –“” – A convex decorative molding having parallel strips resembling thin reeds.
  • p. 759: “And in between, I’ve been in a kind of bardo state, flying around in a gray roar, climbing with drop-spattered windows to laddered sunlight, descending to rainclouds and rain and escalators down and down to a tumble of faces in baggage claim, eerie kind of afterlife, the space between earth and not-earth, world and not-world, highly polished floors and glass-roof cathedral echoes and the whole anonymous concourse glow, a mass identity I don’t want to be a part of and indeed am not a part of, except it’s almost as if I’ve died, I feel different, I am different, and there’s a certain benumbed pleasure in moving in and out of the group mind, napping in molded plastic chairs and wandering the gleaming aisles of Duty Free and of course everyone perfectly nice when you touch down, indoor tennis courts and private beaches and – after the obligatory tour, all very nice, admiring the Bonnard, the Vuillard, light lunch out by the pool – a hefty check and a taxi ride back to the hotel again a good deal poorer.” – in Tibetan Buddhism, the state of the soul between its death and its rebirth
  • p. 765: “And yet there are also half-transparent passages rendered so lovingly along the bold, pastose strokes that there’s tenderness in the contrast, and even humor; the underlayer of paint is visible beneath the hairs of his brush; he wants us to feel the downy breast-fluff, the softness and texture of it, the brittleness of the little claw curled about the brass perch.” – painted thickly : covered or filled with paint

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2014 8:41 am

    I thought this was too long as I was reading it but, once I was done, I thought it was all necessary.

    • August 24, 2014 11:18 am

      Kathy – I hear you; I don’t think any of the things that happened could have been cut, necessarily. But within each of the parts, there were swaths of description that I think could have been trimmed, and it would have summed up to a pretty big chunk.

  2. August 20, 2014 4:10 am

    This is going to be my summer read for late August, I am sure it needed editing, but oh well, summer is the time for reading a good long chunkster.

    • August 24, 2014 11:20 am

      Claire – I feel like I do most of my fatty-fat book reading during the winter, when I can curl up with a mug of tea and not feel like I should be outside doing something else.

  3. August 20, 2014 9:06 pm

    I so agree that the book is too long. I liked it more than you did — did you not like Boris? Boris at all? You didn’t mention him! And he was by far my favorite bit of the book.

    • August 24, 2014 11:22 am

      Jenny – Ack, I did totally leave Boris out! And Boris was my favorite character, by far. I think he fell victim to the problems I have summarizing books like this, where I don’t want to just provide a laundry list of everything that happened, but it’s hard to distinguish which are the things that happen that bear mentioning, so I wind up giving really vague summaries that leave out almost all of the important events.


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