Earlier this year, I wrote a review of the book on Goodreads that read “While this book is well written, the only character I cared about was the painting.” I intended to write more, but got distracted. Still, that one sentence pretty much sums up my feelings about the book.
Oh, I could say I liked the dead mother also. (That’s not a spoiler, because you learn the mother dies in the first fifty pages or so.)
SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN THE GOLDFINCH.
Ms. Tartt created a few unique characters—the Russian boy Boris comes to mind. But many of her characters were stock types—Theo’s friend the nerdy Andy Barbour; the rich, depressed Mrs. Barbour; the kindly friend James Hobart (“Hobie”) who later takes Theo in without asking too many questions about his past; the bitchy stepmother Xandra. None of these characters were very likeable.
Even the protagonist Theo, comes across as the epitomical shell-shocked orphan, thrown into a cruel world through no fault of his own. Theo’s world is modern and crosses many social strata, but it is no less squalid than Dickens’s 19th century London slums. But Theo doesn’t rise above his world, he sinks into it. He wallows in it. I tried to like Theo, but I just couldn’t drum up enough sympathy for him to make The Goldfinch worthwhile. And certainly I didn’t have enough sympathy to last 800 pages.
I was entertained by Boris’s shenanigans and manipulations, but I couldn’t sympathize with his and Theo’s drug and alcohol use and shoplifting. I chuckled when Boris first came on the scene, but within a few pages I wanted to throw the book across the room each time he conned Theo into another bad act.
I could see that Ms. Tartt wanted us to sympathize with all these characters as products of their environment, but I couldn’t help wanting to shake them into taking responsibility for themselves. Theo becomes the addicted thief his father was, despite despising his father.
You’d think Theo would have developed just a little self-awareness through the years, but he didn’t. He only came to his senses after he is almost killed, again as the result of Boris’s manipulations. Even then, his first reaction is to hole up in drug-induced oblivion in a foreign hotel.
Ms. Tartt’s language is often beautiful, but she goes on ad nauseum. One article said that the book had been acquired by its publisher in 2008, yet not published until 2013. Ms. Tartt must have added fifty to one hundred pages of extraneous text each year in between.
One of my friends gushed about the book when she was about 200 pages into it. By the time she finished, she agreed with me—the book is at least 300 pages too long. I really wanted it to be over long before Theo left Las Vegas to return to New York.
But I had to find out what happened to the painting. That’s all that kept me going until the end.
What books have you thought you should like, but you just couldn’t?