Reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was like going to a big, loud party that went way too late. Some of the time it was fun and really astonishing, but a lot of the time I just wished I were doing something else.
Notice I'm not saying that this is a bad book. It is, objectively speaking, a good book, with great characters and good plotting, though it is way too long. But like that loud party, it just wasn't for me. It made me feel exhausted and kind of irritable; also intermittently bored.
In The Goldfinch, a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art injures Theo, an adolescent boy, and kills his mother. In the ensuring confusion, Theo appropriates a famous painting by a Dutch artist (The Goldfinch), which becomes a kind of talisman for him, a last link to his mother, but also a repository for his survivor's guilt. Unable to part with the painting, he hides it, taking it with him as he goes to Nevada to live with his estranged father, a gambler, and then later when he returns to New York to make his way as an adult. Eventually, the pressure to return the painting increases Theo's propensity for self-destructive behavior, resulting in a series of disasters, though Tartt does offer some resolution at the end.
The Goldfinch just won the Pulitzer Prize, which doesn't surprise me because I never really like the books that win that award. It's also on the shortlist for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), the winners of which I usually do like (The Tiger's Wife, The Lacuna, Property), so I guess that's the part of the party where I was having fun.
Yes, I get the appeal of the Dickensian characters and structure, and the homage to Manhattan that makes all the New York book reviewers squeal with glee. Tartt made me love Theo and then she put him through hell, which doesn’t usually bother me but did in this case, maybe because he was just a kid.
The whole middle section, where Theo and his friend Boris are marooned in Las Vegas and live off vodka and leftover bar snacks, just goes (painfully) on and on and on, and then when Theo returns to New York it's just bad choices leading to worse ones. I also have to complain briefly about the book's classist depiction of Theo's father and his girlfriend, and the way Tartt sets up their slovenly habits and low-brow aspirations in opposition to those of the cultured New Yorkers that Theo left behind. Really?
You can find plenty of plot summaries and glowing reviews of The Goldfinch all over the Internet, though a quick search finds that not everyone liked it. I did think about the general call to good manners: "if you can't say anything nice...." But that has never stopped me before (see my cantankerous assessments of books by Philip Roth and Jeffrey Eugenides, for example). At least I bothered to write a post. Most of the time when I dislike a book this much I just toss it in the library return bin without even a mention. So there's that.