Books of 2013, #48: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I would be substantially less annoyed by Donna Tartt‘s writing pace — at one novel per decade, Tartt makes George R. R. Martin look like Stephen King — if The Goldfinch hadn’t fallen so completely flat in its final third. Seriously, it just sort of comes to pieces.

It’s hard to explain or discuss much about this book without engaging in spoilers, but it’s probably okay to set the stage: our hero is a Theo Decker, and he’s a child when the book opens. He and his mother — his father has taken a powder — live in New York.

One day, his mother takes him to the museum, where he is thundersturck by the sight of a young girl being shepherded through the museum by an older relative. The museum, shockingly, becomes the target of a terrorist bomb. Separated at the time of the blast, our hero survives only to encounter a mortally wounded man — the same man who’d been escorting the young girl, who is nowhere to be seen. The dying man presses Theo to rescue the titular painting (a real one, by the 17th century painter Carel Fabritius), and so Theo becomes the guardian of a lost treasure — one presumed lost in the museum bombing. (Yes, real-world art losses are name-checked, so you get to feel clever if you know what happened to Rembrandt’s only seascape.)

What follows is a positively Dickensian Bildungsroman, at least for about 2/3 of the book. Who will care for Theo? Will it be his wealthy friend Andy’s family? Where is is his father, and will he turn up? What’s the story of the girl and the dying man? Where will all this go?

It’s the resolution of the last question, I’m sad to say, that Tartt kind of whiffs. We stay with Theo into adulthood, and the book holds together pretty well most of the way there, but the final sequence of events — which consume most of the last third of the book — aren’t quite right by my lights. There’s a weird shift in tone, and a strange sense of both too much and not enough. We reach an end, but it’s not really an end that feels right for the book. (I’m not alone in my reservations, as it turns out.)

So here I am. I loved The Secret History in 1992, and The Little Friend ten years later. Her sensibility agrees with me. I suppose I’ll buy her 2023 book at publication, too.

But disappointments are easier to weather when there’s more work to enjoy. Write like the wind, Ms Tartt.

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