BWW Reviews: THE GOLDFINCH Shows That Length Does Not Always Mean Depth

By: Oct. 21, 2013
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A mysterious bomb attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills the mother of 13-year-old Theo Decker, setting off a grievous dislocation, both physical and emotional, that lasts throughout his adolescence and young adulthood. Moving from his New York Apartment to a downtown curiosity shop, to a friend's apartment on Park Avenue, and his deadbeat father's Las Vegas hangout, Theo's displaced life is anchored by two things: his love for a young girl also affected by the blast, and his mother's favorite painting plucked off the museum walls in the bomb aftermath.

And that's just the first 400 pages.

The anticipation surrounding Donna Tartt's latest novel, THE GOLDFINCH has been overwhelming, yet understandable, given that Tartt's fans have to wait a decade in between new releases (she has released three books in the past two decades). Her first book, A Secret History, was released in 1992 and experienced immense success. Like THE GOLDFINCH, A Secret History also features an isolated young man who falls into the wrong crowd. Together, they take their obsession with art to extreme, ultimately violent levels of pursuit. In the case of History, the group performs Dionysian rituals in the forests. Theo's affinity for art places him at the center of a criminal underworld, dealing art. And drugs. Or something.

My feeling while reading both books this past year (Tartt's first and her latest) was that there were so many lost opportunities to create truly nuanced and emotional stories. The first chapters of both novels are presented in retrospect by first-person narrators. Richard Pappen reflects on the ephemeral memory of an act of murder. Theo Decker reveals his paranoid state of mind while hiding from his past in Amsterdam. Both narrators, clearly dealing with incredibly complex feelings of guilt and confusion while also having entirely subjective, unreliable viewpoints in the crimes, provide an author with the opportunity to blur some lines, to write in a style and manner that refuses to present facts from an objective frame. However, Tartt's books are full of objective detail, of straight retelling. There is very little unique about her narrators' voices.

Likewise, both books deal with very historically nuanced and philosophically complex subjects. However, in A Secret History's nearly 600 pages, I found no more depth in its discussion of the college Bacchanal experience that a freshman reading of Euripides' The Bacchae or an article on hazing in frat houses. THE GOLDFINCH adds on two hundred more pages, a heck of a lot more characters and events, but still feels like it only touches the surface of its narrator's interior mind.

It is true that Donna Tartt's description are vivid and sometimes quite fresh. Her prose never gives the impression that Tartt is unable to present her characters and settings in a truthful and realistic light. But, perhaps that is also her weakness. Theo Decker lacks the rawness we expect from him; we are not given even a hint of the frenzied psychological state presented in the book's opening chapter. His story is told straightforwardly- it's no surprise that some reviewers feel an uncanny connection to Harry Potter and other conventional bildungsromans. Tartt's super-realistic approach does create a vivid story, but not a vivid style or a complex character, without which an 800-page book feels like a tiring exercise.


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