Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: a curate's egg of a novel

Until this point, I've been a fan of Donna Tartt, purely because I absolutely loved her first novel The Secret History. I remained a fan even though I hated her second book The Little Friend and couldn't get beyond page 20. Well, now I've finally finished this, her latest novel, and quite honestly I don't think I'm a fan any longer.

At the beginning, however, I was hooked, because the writing is absolutely top-class and both literary and gripping. I couldn't get enough of Theo's childhood, and the description of the traumatic event which changes his whole life, and the fall-out from that is quite simply excellent. I couldn't at this point stop reading. I loved the story of his time with the Barbour family after the tragedy - and I have a special fondness for Mrs Barbour who's apparently so cold-hearted and yet does absolutely the right thing for Theo whenever the chips are down. She's a brilliant character and could definitely fill her own novel.

I also loved the sections where Theo's father comes to claim him, and he starts a new life with his rediscovered parent. It's a brilliant contrast to the middle-class lifestyle of the Barbours and excellently written.

Unfortunately, once Theo grows up, the novel starts, slowly and inexorably, to fall apart, to my mind. From being a fascinating and clear-sighted child, Theo becomes a really very dull and drugged-up adult and I lost interest in him entirely. Every detail of Theo's life - almost - is recorded here, and it's just not worth it. That said, I did like Hobie, the old man who takes Theo and gives him a trade, and I could have done with more of him.

There were even a couple of times when Tartt resorts to telling us rather than showing us some key scenes, which is really rather sloppy writing - though in a 700 page novel perhaps she too just couldn't bear the thought of making it any longer. For instance, Theo is deeply in love with Pippa, but the scene where she introduces him to her new live-in boyfriend is not seen directly, but Theo tells us about it afterwards - in very cliched terms. That's a missed opportunity for a bit of drama. And I could have done with a bit of interest at that point.

Towards the end, I began seriously to start skipping, even though several moments of great excitement do take place - for instance, an old friend turns up, there's an engagement party and even a shooting - but all this is so hidden in the dullness of Theo and his observations that it becomes meaningless. So, all in all, this book has fantastic start, but it needed the last third cut and a good bit of editing done to the remaining text to make this even half as good as Tartt's first novel. Oh well.

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