Donna Tartt is hands-down one of my favorite authors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Donna Tartt is absolutely one of my favorite authors.
My first introduction to her work was The Secret History. Incidentally, this was also my first exposure to the genre/trope of dark academia. If I remember correctly, I read it because my friend Hannah said I had to read it. It should be noted that at least half of my recommendations come from her. Thank you Hannah for your literary services. I’m in love with you.
The Secret History is one of my favorite books and honestly, it might be the first book that I re-read. A note to that: I have re-read books before, but I don’t think in the past three to four years I’ve re-read a book*. But given some recent murmurings in the book community about The Secret History being problematic, I want to give it another read. I also selfishly want to re-read it with the intent of understanding voice better so I can incorporate it into my own DA novel. Sorry Donna.
I’ve also mentioned that The Secret History is my favorite book to gift to people. I’m always of the opinion that books are an amazing gift, especially a book that you really like! I’ve given different copies as gifts to no less than four friends already; I’m happy to report that three out of four recipients have loved it, and the fourth….still hasn’t read it. Sigh. But I have high hopes!
With my love for Tartt’s writing and The Secret History fueling me, I decided to tackle The Goldfinch. One reason being that I’ve been meaning to read it for ages and the other being that The Goldfinch was recently made into a movie starring Finn Wolfhard, Ansel Elgort, Sarah Paulson, and Nicole Kidman. I’ve made the mental promise to never watch a movie without having read the book first. This, of course, doesn’t retroactively apply, as I have not read Peter Pan or Black Beauty, but cut past me some slack, okay?
I kept putting off reading The Goldfinch, largely because I didn’t own a copy. I’ve also been endeavoring to read more recent books, as I work in the publishing industry, and “reading recent” is paramount to understanding the book market. And with a 2013 pub date, The Goldfinch wasn’t very high on my TBR list. But, as the movie adaptation was announced, the heat turned up. And when Hannah offered me her copy to borrow, I was fast losing out on excuses not to read it. Coupled with another friend’s recommendation that we do a buddy read—I ran out of excuses.
Now that I’m about 200 pages into my 950+ page copy, I’ve got a few thoughts.
Tartt is narrating from the point of view of a young boy, Theo, (as far as I’ve gotten into the novel, though I anticipate his growing up and his “voice” maturing further on) and she does a decent enough job. It is highly literary and I’m not entirely certain that a young high school boy would have the exact vocabulary that is employed in the novel. Certainly there’s room for doubt as Theo (and his friend Andy’s) eclectic and mature tastes, but it’s still “reading up” to my eye.
This book is insanely literary. Like, overly-descriptive-paragraph-descriptions-crazy-intricate-detail literary. And look, I like literary novels perhaps more than the average reader, but wow. There are moments where I wonder how necessary it is. I know it’s a part of Tartt’s narrative voice, but the action tends to slip away amidst all of the gaudy adjectives. See:
“A wilderness of gilt, gleaming in the slant from the dust-furred windows; gilded cupids, gilded commodes and torchieres, and—undercutting the old-wood smell—the reek of turpentine, oil paint, and varnish. I followed him through the workshop along a path swept in the sawdust, past pegboard and tools, dismembered chairs and claw-foot tables sprawled with their legs in the air. Though a big man he was graceful, “a floater,” my mother would have called him, something effortless and gliding in the way he carried himself. With my eyes on the heels of his slippered feet, I followed him up some narrow stairs and into a dim room, richly carpeted, where black urns stood on pedestals and tasseled draperies were drawn against the sun.”Donna Tartt, The Secret History, page 151
Whew. There’s a lot of that. And I’m all for rich detail and setting the scene—but the scene is set practically every time Theo walks into a room. It’s overwhelmingly immersive, which may or may not be your taste. I like it in ebbs and waves. There are times where I feel as though I’m sitting in the room alongside Theo and there are times where I can’t get through the paragraph fast enough.
The voice also slows down the action a lot. More on that in a second. Overall, the narrative voice aligns with Tartt’s typical gaudy and academic vocabulary. It’s very, what’s the word, gilded. It’s something that I like in moderation. With over 700 pages to go, I’m not sure for how much longer I’m going to like it**.
The initial intrigue has begun to wear off. I want to know more about the painting of the goldfinch, but there hasn’t been so much of a peep about it since Theo packed it away in his suitcase. While I can understand and respect that the story is about more than just the painting, I find myself wanting to know when it’s going to resurface in the story.
However, while I’m wanting more action centered around the painting, the interactions between the characters feel genuine and realistic. The touch-and-go relationship that Theo has with Mr. and Mrs. Barbour reads true; there’s enough tension and awkwardness to reflect true-to-life interactions. The same goes for the way that Theo’s trauma is presented and evolves: he doesn’t eat, doesn’t engage, and fully disconnects from those around him in attempts to protect himself. Once he’s able to deal with his need to find Hobart & Blackwell, he can begin healing—and he does.
I appreciate the way the characters speak to one another and engage. The school therapist that Theo sees, his teachers, classmates, social workers, the whole cast of characters; they all feel like real people and each has their own motivations and desires that are clear without being overt.
But, turning back to the general action, it’s slow. A lot tends to happen all at once and then it stutters and slows for a long while. The action centers more around Theo and his role in the painting’s life and journey more than about the painting itself. This gives Tartt plenty of room (and time) to describe the places that Theo goes to, the way he feels, his thoughts and his dreams and memories. And boy, does she.
I’m curious to see what happens next. I’ve just gotten to an interesting part and I think the action is going to be picking back up again. Once I’ve reached “the halfway point,” I’ll be convening with my friend and we’ll have a mini book club meeting to talk about what’s gone on thus far. Fingers crossed there will be plenty to talk about!
There’s a lot to get through. I’m very interested to see what happens in the next 700 pages given how much has (or hasn’t, depending on your perspective) happened up until this point. My biggest question, or just vague, general wondering, is how they managed to turn this roughly 900-page book into one movie while Hollywood felt the need to extract three movies from the slim 310 pages of Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Questions for another day.
Tartts brings her signature style to The Goldfinch and it shines through powerfully. Elegant detail, plethora of adjectives, just enough intrigue sandwiched between paragraphs of expositions, and of course, horn-rimmed glasses. No Tartt novel is complete without them.
*I lied. I’m ashamed. I decidedly bought the first three books of the Charlie Bone and the Children of the Red King series to see if they were just as good as my nine-year-old brain remembered. Spoiler alert: they are.
**It’s what makes The Goldfinch’s thinner cousin, The Secret History, one of my favorites. Just the right amount of pretentious.