A couple of years ago I read The Secret History and loved it tremendously. Maybe it was because it was about a couple of Classics students and I was one of them at one point in my life. I was fascinated by the level of detail Tartt added to the narrative and I still believe it’s one of the best works of contemporary fiction I read.
And then The Goldfinch was published in 2013, and for some reason, I postponed reading it until now. I treated it like one of the books you know it’s going to be good because an author you love wrote it and everyone else confirms it (even the Pulitzer people), so you put it off for those times you really need to be engulfed in a stunning book. I saved it, as it were.
Last month, after reading a couple of rather disappointing works of fiction in a row, I decided to turn my luck around and dive right in The Goldfinch. And it was a bitter-sweet experience.
First, I have to say that Tartt does justice to any story because damn, she knows how to write. Yes, the book is almost 800-pages long, but for the most part, you won’t be bored. The first thing that slightly ruined the experience was the level of detail about art. It’s exactly what I loved about The Secret History, but in this new novel, Tartt goes to the next level and you somehow feel that it’s a bit too much. It sometimes gets to the point you lose the plot because of all the digressions.
Of course, it’s a book that’s about paintings, and museums, and art lovers, so of course it’s going to explore the subject in depth. And don’t get me wrong, I am an art-museum junkie myself, but I still found the pages and pages of lessons in art put in the mouth of the characters a tad too much. This becomes the liability of what is otherwise a stunning story with memorable characters. Tartt throws so many names and references to the reader that you need to have studied Art History at one point in your life to really get them all. I confess that I had to stop and Google some of the references to refresh my memory.
“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
The painting in the story actually exists – it’s The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt’s, whose work is largely lost. The book is a bildungsroman in which Theo Decker lives through the violent death of his mother in an art museum bomb explosion when he was a teenager and sails through depression, drugs, and eerie relationships with Boris, a Ukrainian kid with a fascinating personality and Pippa, a girl he first met the day his mother died.
I won’t give away the story, but suffice to say it keeps you captivated enough not to give up after the first 100-pages as you may be tempted. I found the construction of the book rather odd and bold at the same time because you’re actually told where it’s all going in the first two sections (about 100 pages in). I don’t care much for this style, but somehow it works. The middle of the book is the part I found tiresome and rather difficult to follow. It feels a bit like the editor hasn’t done their job properly, with over-laborious descriptions that look self-indulgent at times.
All in all, I don’t regret the almost two weeks I spent reading The Goldfinch (it doesn’t really take that much, but life happens). It’s just it wasn’t what I expected it to be, but I also believe it’s very difficult to match The Secret History, hence the bitter-sweet aftertaste.