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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

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To purchase The Goldfinch

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 771 pages
Availability: The Goldfinch - US
The Goldfinch - UK
The Goldfinch - Canada
The Goldfinch - India
Le chardonneret - France
Der Distelfink - Deutschland
Il cardellino - Italia
El jilguero - España

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining swathes, but composition as a whole creaks

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 26/10/2013 .
Entertainment Weekly B- 9/10/2013 Clark Collis
Financial Times . 18/10/2013 Emily Stokes
The Guardian A+ 17/10/2013 Kamila Shamsie
The Independent A 18/10/2013 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday A 20/10/2013 James Kidd
Literary Review . 10/2013 Jonathan Lee
London Rev. of Books . 19/12/2013 Christopher Tayler
The LA Times A+ 17/10/2013 Geoff Nicholson
New Statesman . 24/10/2013 Jane Shilling
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/1/2014 Francine Prose
The NY Times A 8/10/2013 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 13/10/2013 Stephen King
The New Yorker . 21/10/2013 James Wood
The Observer D 19/10/2013 Julie Myerson
San Francisco Chronicle A 25/10/2013 S. Kirk Walsh
The Spectator . 12/10/2013 Philip Hensher
The Telegraph . 13/10/2013 Catherine Taylor
The Times . 18/10/2013 Alex O'Connell
TLS . 1/11/2013 Alex Clark
Wall St. Journal . 18/10/2013 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A 22/10/2013 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Entertaining, and many very impressed -- but not all

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Goldfinch is a startling accomplishment, bringing a truly Victorian tale (complete with an orphanís moral education and the secrets of a heavy gold ring) right up against the explosive device of a postmodern thriller. But Ms Tartt has the true storytellerís gift, what southerners call "yarning": the voice she creates is so convincing that the reader will believe anything she says" - The Economist

  • "The Goldfinch unfolds in what should feel like a far more realistic post-9/11 landscape, yet the result is less convincing as its set pieces jostle uncomfortably together. Like the beautiful, antique-looking furniture Hobie builds using materials from different ages, the novel has too many disparate parts to be a genuine treasure." - Clark Collis, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The Goldfinch is impressive -- lavish, gripping, exciting -- and yet somehow, like one of the "changeling" pieces of furniture made by Hobie from odds and ends which Theo (in secret) tries to fob off as real, its overall effect doesnít quite convince -- its worlds too diverse and neatly juxtaposed not to raise suspicion. Tarttís prose, always lush, can sag under its own decoration; the register, too, slides between Sebaldian cool and teenage slang" - Emily Stokes, Financial Times

  • "To say any more about the events of the novel would be to deprive a reader of the great joy of being swept up by the plot. If anyone has lost their love of storytelling, The Goldfinch should most certainly return it to them. The novel isn't, of course, all action and suspense. (...) Plot and character and fine prose can take you far Ė but a novel this good makes you want to go even further. The last few pages of the novel take all the serious, big, complicated ideas beneath the surface and hold them up to the light." - Kamila Shamsie, The Guardian

  • "Tartt's novel not only dwells on the magical metamorphosis that fabricates a plausible reality from frank and manifest technique. The Goldfinch embodies it. (...) The novel lets us see, and feel, the real bird beyond the brush -- or rather, the grief, and addictive yearning, behind its cabinet of curiosities. We witness all the working, and still she makes us care." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Tartt isnít pastiching the realist novel so much as updating it for our times. Her own version is filtered through existentialism, the Beats, and Frank OíHaraís closely observed verse. (...) Like Fabritius, Tarttís conceit is to create a work of art that strives to be realistic, but knows that the harder it tries, the more its contrivances are exposed. The Goldfinch teases with its own artifice (.....) The Goldfinch is a gripping page-turner and a challenging, beautifully written account of modern life. Moving but unsentimental, funny without being trite, all human life is here. Or at least, quite a lot. The Goldfinch will doubtless be a contender for one of 2013ís best novels." - James Kidd, Independent on Sunday

  • "This is the story of a bespectacled, gifted, orphaned boy grieving the tragic death of his parents, growing into a risky new maturity, seeking to overcome adversities in a world not quite his own ... Ring any bells ? You have to admire Tartt's sense of play here but, by the end of the book, when the plot begins to creak and Theo gets into gunfights with big-league art criminals, it's not altogether helpful to have Daniel Radcliffe in mind." - Jonathan Lee, Literary Review

  • "The Goldfinch -- only her third novel in 20-plus years -- coheres magnificently. More ambitious and accomplished than The Secret History, the narrative is tauter even as the book's scope is wider, with events spanning a decade or more and scenes set in multiple locations in America and Europe. The stakes are higher, and the characters, drawn from a wider social milieu, are downright more interesting. (...) For all its artfulness, and despite a satisfying and wholly unexpected denouement, The Goldfinch both describes and understands the arbitrariness of life and never makes it seem simpler or more orderly than the fascinating, troubling mess it is." - Geoff Nicholson, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Goldfinch is without doubt a beguiling novel. It is smart -- in both the American and the British senses of that word -- brilliantly readable, thrilling and touching. It contains some ravishingly beautiful writing about objects and about cities; New York and Amsterdam appear as characters in their own right. But there is a sense -- engendered, perhaps, by the sheer length of time between novels -- that Tarttís ambition extends beyond the writing of very stylish, engaging and literate bestsellers." - Jane Shilling, New Statesman

  • "Throughout The Goldfinch are sections that seem like the sort of passages a novelist employs as placeholders, hastily sketched-in paragraphs to which the writer intends to go back: to sharpen the focus, to find a telling detail, to actually do the hard work of writing. If we readily grasp a scene that Tartt is setting, itís often because her streetscapes and interiors are not merely familiar but generic. (...) Reading The Goldfinch, I found myself wondering, "Doesnít anyone care how something is written anymore ?" -- a question I would have been less likely to ask were I reading a detective novel. But The Goldfinch is being talked about, and read, as a work of serious literary fiction." - Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading. (...) Itís a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. I read it with that mixture of terror and excitement I feel watching a pitcher carry a no-hitter into the late innings. (...) There are a few missteps, yes. Itís hard to believe that television coverage of a terrorist attack like the one Tartt imagines would be interrupted with mattress commercials, and thereís a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed. But for the most part, The Goldfinch is a triumph with a brave theme running through it (.....) Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction." - Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Nothing wrong, I suppose, with a Harry Potter homage, but it's hard for an adult reader to be gripped by a tale with no real subtext and peopled entirely by Goodies and Baddies. (...) But maybe none of this would matter much if the writing itself were sharp and pacy, light on its feet. Unfortunately it's leaden, bereft of any attitude or attack, vision or edge. (...) There are some highs. Narcotics and antiques: these, you feel, are where Tartt's heart lies. (...) Sadly it's not enough to save this great, mystifying mess of a novel." - Julie Myerson, The Observer

  • "With this extraordinary novel, Tartt achieves this creative ideal -- connecting the reader to a "larger beauty" and opening up the meaning of what it means to grieve, survive and recover to varying degrees. Clocking in at 771 pages, The Goldfinch requires commitment from the reader, but it is a commitment that is well rewarded. The reader is swept into an aria of sorts about a lost childhood and a lost mother and a lost painting. The Goldfinch sings, page after page." - S. Kirk Walsh, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "So psychological plausibility is sacrificed to the demands of a furiously exciting story. This, for the most part, is brilliantly done (and I fully admit to having enjoyed this book) (.....) But the main problem with The Goldfinch is that it asserts lovability and wit without ever successfully enacting either." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "The novel concludes with several pages of high-minded whimsicality, while the concept that the deathlessness of a work of art can make the keenest losses more bearable is questionable. But in such a richly animated, cleverly wrought entertainment as this, it is hard not to applaud the sentiment." - Catherine Taylor, The Telegraph

  • "We are never freed from Theo's point of view; and yet we rarely feel he is fully present. Instead, he exists at the margins of his story, often figuring himself as a ghost. (...) The Goldfinch is an impressively mysterious novel, a pretend picaresque that refuses to stay on track. It is by no means unflawed; sometimes the whole disappears too thoroughly behind the brilliance of its vignettes." - Alex Clark, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Goldfinch is rich in such atmosphere and peopled by a delightfully various and hyperactive supporting cast. (...) What binds all these disparate parts is the painting itself. The small work -- it is only 13 inches by 9 -- becomes Theo's emotional touchstone, capable of absorbing and transfiguring his grief. (...) (A) book that begins with atrocity and spectacle concludes with a moving disquisition on the power of immortal art to carve beauty out of pain." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "With a Dutch masterís attention to detail, Tartt has created a narrative voice that is simultaneously immediate and retrospective, filled with the boyís adolescent anxieties and the manís fermented despair. (...) While grief may be the novelís bassline, Theoís wit and intelligence provide the bookís endearing melody. (...) Tartt has created a rare treasure: a long novel that never feels long, a book worthy of our winter hibernation by the fire." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Near the end of The Goldfinch its narrator, Theo Decker, has to explain to someone close to him how he's gotten to the point he has -- and he warns: "It's a long story. I'll make it as short as I can." A bit earlier, wanting answers from a friend from his teen years who has compounded the mess Theo finds himself in, he's told: "well, it's complicated, I could talk for three days, but I can also tell you in three lines what has happened". In neither case is the actual explanation or account then presented -- Tartt simply sidesteps them -- but then The Goldfinch is itself that summing-up, a retrospective account, beginning fourteen years after the event that changed Theo's life with a brief present-day introduction before he jumps back to that fateful day and his thirteen-year-old self, his account then wending its way slowly to the present.
       The Goldfinch is a long novel, and it might seem curious that Tartt several times refers to the simplification of complex stories -- 'I'll make it as short as I can'; 'I can also tell you in three lines what has happened' -- when her ambition seems to be an expansive telling. And, indeed, what she offers is generally not compression, despite a few summary-tales to fill in some of the blank spots -- yet it's striking how often she elides over detail or fails to follow through with characters, who generally seem to pop up as a matter of convenience and can be ignored the rest of the time; she doesn't even bother with the yawning gap of the six years of Theo's high-school/college years, barely outlining what happens to him here beyond using it a bit as part of the set-up for the present-day scenes -- a few odds and ends explaining how Theo gets from A to B. As yet another character says apropos of yet another aspect of the novel: "there is more to this than we yet know. Still, I'm hopeful"; hope isn't exactly dashed, but the answers aren't entirely satisfying. Despite it's heft, The Goldfinch repeatedly feels not so much incomplete as undertold; disappointingly, too, Tartt often allows Theo to progress (or stagnate) in a drugged (or fevered) haze, a cheap excuse not to describe the passing time and events with any sort of clarity.
       Theo opens his account recalling relatively recent events, when he was holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam. There's an odd misstep here: in the first paragraph Theo claims: "I knew not a word of Dutch", while in the second he writes of: "red-cheeked dames en heren". Either he (and/or Tartt) wants to blatantly set him(self) up as an entirely unreliable narrator, or he (and/or Tartt) have a strange taste for hyperbole; in either case, it's an annoying distraction. (This brief introductory sub-chapter that's barely two pages long introduces him as a character living in a world unto himself (shut up in his hotel room, afraid to attract the least bit of notice), with little sense of time ("Night seemed to fall in the middle of the afternoon"; "I thrashed around, hardly knowing if it was day or night"), feverish ("I was cold and ill"), and torn between dreams and reality (imagining: "not a dream but a presence that filled the whole room"), all effectively foreshadowing much that follows.)
       Theo presents his story chronologically after that, taking the reader to that fateful day when he was thirteen -- the story proper then beginning with a bang. In trouble at school, Theo and his mother have an appointment for a school conference. With time to kill and a sudden rainstorm chasing them indoors they wind up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There's a special show of Dutch masters on, and beside well-known classics such as The Anatomy Lesson there's also: "just about the first painting I ever loved", as Theo's mother enthuses -- the "missing link between" Rembrandt and Vermeer: Fabritius' The Goldfinch, one of only five or six of his paintings to survive. The painter was killed (and most of his work destroyed) in a gunpowder factory explosion in Delft in 1654 -- and, conveniently echoing that 'Delftse donderslag', Theo and his mother are in the museum when bombs go off, leveling much of the interior.
       Theo survives; his mother does not, and as he notes before he even describes what happened:

     Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.
     Her death was the dividing mark: Before and After.
       Theo speaks with certainty, but of course there's no way of knowing: things could have turned out much worse. But from the beginning it's a convenient excuse for him to blame his misery on. Their love for each other is presented as an inordinately strong one, though since the mother isn't much of a real presence Theo makes us take his word for it and the genuineness of his feeling. It doesn't feel entirely convincing in Tartt's presentation, but then it's hard to convey that in a way that feels authentic.
       In the museum Theo encounters a red-haired girl about his age -- Pippa -- flute case in hand, accompanied by someone he thinks might be her grandfather. She becomes, and remains, always, the girl of his dreams: "the missing kingdom, the unbruised part of myself I'd lost with my mother". But it is the old man he's thrown together with after the explosion: still alive, though barely, the old man presses a gold ring on him and gives him vague instructions -- and insists too: "Take it with you !", saddling Theo with more to haunt him in the coming years. The old man dies, and Theo escapes -- hoping still to be reunited with his mother, though we already know that's not going to happen.
       Abrupt parental disappearance isn't entirely a new experience for Theo: his absolutely good-for-nothing father disappeared from their lives relatively recently, too. An unpleasant drinker and gambler, he was just another reason for Theo and his mother to be closer. Since he can't be found after Theo loses his mother, Theo winds up being taken in by the well-to-do Barbours. Their son Andy is a bright classmate of his -- they both skipped the same grade -- and they put up with Theo for a while.
       Eventually, however, Dad reappears and takes Theo off to live with him and his girlfriend in Las Vegas, in an isolated housing development where most of the houses remain unsold and empty. Theo makes a friend there: wild kid Boris, whose father works in mining and who has really gotten around in the world. They lead a dissolute, largely unsupervised life, but eventually are separated when Theo's father's gambling debts catch up with him, and Theo quickly makes his way back to New York -- going to Hobie, the business partner of the old man who had died in the museum-blast. A restorer of antiques, Hobie didn't really handle the business side of selling antiques, and it's Theo who steps into this role, eventually filling the footsteps of the dead man -- Pippa's uncle -- and running their shop.
       Pippa was also shipped off to a relative in a godforsaken part of the country, but she remains close to Hobie and occasionally turns up in New York; she and Theo have a close bond, but this girl of his dreams remains elusive.
       Oddly skipping over some six years of Theo's school years in New York, the story picks up again once he's settled in running the shop (and taking a few too many liberties in what claims he makes about some of the pieces he sells). Theo also returns into the lives of the Barbours, whose circumstances have also changed in the years he had been out of touch, with the father's mental illness having left considerable damage in its wake. (Few characters in The Goldfinch could be described as entirely mentally balanced -- indeed, arguably only Hobie is, with even too-smart-for-his-own-good Andy not quite in his right mind. From the manic to the soul-damaged to the manipulative, almost everyone is a mess, one way or another; rampant substance abuse (prescription and otherwise) doesn't help matters either.)
       Eventually, even Boris resurfaces -- and, not unexpectedly, helps bring matters to a dramatic head, as he pulls out the rug from Theo in quite dramatic fashion (but then also works hard -- in his own way -- to set things right). Boris' surprise upends a pillar Theo had long taken for granted (as a pillar -- in other ways it weighed on him terribly, but in that regard Boris' news is of little help or comfort) and seriously complicates his life. With Boris dragging him off to the Netherlands (straight from his engagement party ...) the book comes to its wham-bang climax, Theo once again put in a situation that is near-overwhelming and life-changing.
       The story moves along quite well much of the way. Tartt has a few annoying ticks -- the reliance on scenes of foggy drugged/boozed-up/hungry/feverish excess foremost among them (too often the reader is made to empathize with Theo's: "In my lightheadedness and fatigue, which made me feel drastically cut off from myself and as if I were observing it all at a remove, I walked past candy shops and coffee shops and shops with antique toys and Delft tiles", etc.) -- but she crafts quite a few solid scenes. Much of the novel is thoroughly engrossing -- part by part -- but these many parts don't all fit together well. Indeed, the novel as a whole also seems pieced together much the way she describes some of Hobie's antique-work -- making a good impression, but, on closer inspection, revealing its imposture.
       Tartt's New York seems like something out of a time capsule and feels absolutely un-contemporary, and she's best at scenes of isolation -- Theo's Las Vegas circumstances are a convincing dystopia, for example. Indeed, this is a strikingly solitary novel, as even Theo's connections with Boris and Hobie retain a superficial aspect to them (and he never manages to really connect with a woman, with even soul-mate Pippa carefully keeping him (or herself) at quite the distance). The only connection he had, or claims to have had, is that great bond with his mother. But, you know, she's dead .....
       The lack of connection impacts the novel, too: the character-portraits are often vivid and striking, but there's tremendously little follow-through. No one exists apart from him: out of sight, out of mind. (This hits home nicely when he finally figures out that his fiancée sees their marriage as one of more (and different) convenience than he had suspected.) Pippa, whom he daydreams about, is, unsurprisingly, one of the least real figures, while the ones he is in closer contact with are often fascinating when he interacts with them, but then go up in a puff of smoke when he's apart from them. Hence Tartt has great difficulty in bridging her scenes, meaning her absences: characters pop into and out of Theo's life, but it's soon clear none are really part of it. (Hell, for a while, she even more or less loses track of Theo himself.) So too, finally, with the Fabritius painting, which comes to feel far too much like a prop, even as Tartt waxes eloquently about the poor little birdie.
       Tartt ties things up reasonably nicely, though Theo's philosophical-maudlin-musings don't entirely convince based on what's led him to this point (this point of documentation, too, as he writes about writing, sure also: "no one's ever going to see this"). Tartt seems to mean this to be a novel about love, and yet there's precious little of it here, and what there is is failed (death frequently getting in the way) and/or more or less unrequited (the dead don't love back very well, and most of the living here also fail in at least aspects of their relationships). It's typified by the situation with his fiancée, where even at the end -- a year after the story's climax -- he can report: "my engagement isn't off, not officially anyway"; what kind of relationships can these be ? So too with the objects -- and much of the novel is about love of the inanimate, of moments and memories and antiques, with Hobie admitting (but surely not really convinced): "I suppose it's ignoble to spend your life caring so much for objects". And yet the central object in the novel, the painting, is barely seen; it is loved and valued almost entirely in the abstract, as a representative object and totem rather than for what it actually is (with a clever twist by Tartt demonstrating just how abstracted Theo's love of the physical object is).
       Boris' nickname for Theo when they are teenagers is 'Potter', because Theo's glasses make him look like Harry Potter: appropriately (unfortunately), Boris still calls him that when they reunite in their late twenties. In part, no doubt, because much of the novel describes adolescent experience, it feels like a YA novel; unfortunately, like its protagonist, the novel never become convincingly adult.
       Much of The Goldfinch is absorbing, but it doesn't live up the grand ambitions it seems to have (Tartt seems to be targeting some very big themes). Some of these are lost in the sensationalism Tartt forces into the story, others in the tangential -- making this only a literally weighty book, and otherwise light -- but reasonably entertaining -- fare.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 October 2013

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The Goldfinch: Reviews: Donna Tartt: Other books by Donna Tartt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction under review

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About the Author:

       American author Donna Tartt wrote the popular novel, The Secret History.

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© 2013-2015 the complete review

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