Without giving away this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, it’s impossible to say much more than this: a 400-year-old painting called The Goldfinch provides the anchor (in that it both grounds and sinks Theo) for the whole story. What the painting depicts (a beautiful bird tied down by the smallest and lightest of chains), captured for our perusal by a master painter, is also the central metaphor of the story. I’m just not sure that Tartt is a master writer, Pulitzer committee be damned.
This was an involving book that I could not wait to get back to—while I was reading it — but after I finished it, it felt rather hollow. Some wonderful characters and fine writing serve an extremely melodramatic plot. Much of the 700-plus page book is taken up with descriptions of drug and alcohol use, and fragments of sentences that are meant to be atmospheric, poetic, and descriptive but to me seem to be lazy writing, as if Tartt emptied her notebook onto the page when she needed to move forward with the book.
Theo’s voice, so warm and engaging in the beginning of the book when he is a young man, becomes burdened and burdensome; but other characters leap off the page and charm even when—especially when—they are most menacing. The highly contrasting settings and social strata are finely drawn, and in Theo, Tartt does achieve a Tolstoyan level of dread and menace, self-destruction and yearning, a true lost soul. I’m just not sure that I want to be lost with him.
Mel Malmberg is currently working on her first book of fiction; a novel about young Will Shakespeare.
Find Mel on Twitter at TheDailyBard@365shakespeare.