The Goldfinch

10 January 2014 Books

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

Just mention the name Donna Tartt and book lovers go all mistyeyed. Tartt’s superlatively good 1992 debut novel, The Secret History, was an instant success: a masterful work at once suspenseful and boundary pushing.

That was always going to be a near impossible act to follow. In the 20-odd years since, Tartt has done nothing to top it – although the scarcity of her output ensures readers still hang onto every word.

Her second book, The Little Friend (2002) didn’t quite reach the blazing heights of her first. So readers waited. Patiently. For more than a decade. Then, finally, Tartt delivered her third. Sadly, while – at 771 pages – it has the bulk of three robust novels, it has less heft than it should.

The book follows the misadventures of New Yorker Theo Decker from the age of 13, when a dramatic explosion in the city’s Metropolitan Museum kills his mother and sends Theo ricocheting between upper-class privilege and its criminal flip side. The book is constructed like a 19thcentury epic (begging for comparisons to Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield), following Theo as he reels through adolescence and washes up in troubled adulthood. But, despite the book’s scope, it is strangely stagnant. For the first two-thirds, the narrative is ponderous, almost inert, dragged down by expository observation, unnecessary detail, belaboured metaphor and awkward dialogue.

At the heart of the novel lies Theo’s unwitting ‘theft’ of The Goldfinch, a priceless painting by a 17th-century Dutch master. Theo’s unwillingness to part with the painting, despite the heavy toll it takes – guilt, anxiety and, ultimately, real external dangers – seems an apt metaphor for trauma/addiction.

But the reader is so beaten over the head with this device that one wishes Tartt would get rid of the thing, already. There is still evidence of Tartt’s fine writing, though; Theo’s excursions into addiction, and his education in antique furniture, are compellingly written – evocative, and well observed. And the writing in the final third tightens considerably, as the suspense (finally, after 400-odd pages) starts to build.

But it’s a robust reader who has hung on long enough to enjoy such rewards. Perhaps Donna Tartt being Donna Tartt has made it difficult for her editors to offer the refinements necessary to shape a truly fine novel. Or perhaps Tartt has earned the rare luxury of being able to do exactly as she pleases, knowing her many loyal readers will follow her on even the most tortuous of journeys. Some will love this book for its hubris and frank lack of commercial ambition.

Others will have to wait and hope for the return of the brilliance that shaped

The Secret History.

» The Goldfinch is out now.

Melissa Cranenburgh