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WHY I CHOSE IT: I read Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ when I was at school and my love of it inspired me to study Classics at University. It also inspired me to buy her Pulitzer prize winning novel, ‘The Goldfinch’, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. However, a couple of weeks ago, something about the cold autumn air led me to tackle the 864-page epic.
THE PLOT: ‘The Goldfinch’ is about a young boy’s grief when his mother dies. Theo, the main character, steals and becomes obsessed with a very valuable painting that reminds him of his mother – a painting of a goldfinch. Theo’s life takes many dark turns and he is forced to live with a range of characters, but he clings onto the painting as he descends into a life of drug abuse and crime.
MY RATING: This book receives four stars because it wasn’t an easy read. Although it was deserving of the Pulitzer, it’s very long-winded and descriptive so you have to persevere to get to the main story. I personally read fiction for enjoyment, and clearly Donna Tartt is a lot more highbrow than me, so I disliked struggling through long descriptions of antique furniture and famous artworks.
I really enjoyed the plot and character arcs, and felt they made the book a modern epic. There was something Odyssean about Theo’s journeys through life, and I liked that history and preservation were recurring themes. The plot is well thought-out and supporting characters weave through the main narrative in interesting ways. I particularly liked Theo’s friends, Andy and Boris, who livened up the plotlines and added a bit of tension and excitement. Although Boris is an exaggerated character, I felt his portrayal and pattern of speech was realistic (but perhaps this is because I’m friends with a lot of Russians/Russian speakers).
My main criticism is about the long passages of dialogue. Although well written, particularly in different patterns of speech for each character, the dialogue went on for pages in some instances. This felt extraneous in places and it could have been cut down, as it felt like many characters were bordering on giving speeches or soliloquies.
Finally, I also felt like the novel became quite prosaic and gratuitously philosophical. It was as if the author was trying to show off her knowledge about famous art and architecture, rather than telling a story. The plot became lost in sections as the novel fell into reflecting on the setting. This is best evidenced by the last twenty pages, which felt wholly unnecessary. Although the plot had concluded there was a lot of philosophical reflection on the themes of the novel. I would have preferred a chapter or two of this reflection, rather than twenty pages, and more space for the reader to interpret the themes themselves without being told by the author. This philosophical rambling was presented with the excuse that Theo was writing his own story, which felt like un-necessary detail because the whole novel was written in first-person past-tense.
FAVOURITE QUOTE: “That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but may not be random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.” Page 864.