Twenty pages into The Goldfinch (Little Brown and Company, 2013) I started having chest pains, accompanied by shortness of breath. My wrist tingled. I figured it must be something I ate, or maybe early signs of a heart attack. But the most obvious source of discomfort lay close at hand, no more than twelve, maybe fourteen inches from my face.
Donna Tartt’s long-awaited new novel is a 771-page hardcover, weighing in at 1.08 kilos, which is a lot to support during so many hours of reading. It’s a mesmerizing experience, one I wouldn’t want to repeat soon. How often can you afford to put your life on hold for a novel?
The narrator, Theo Decker, New York-born, late twenties, begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam and flashes back to age 13 when a terrible explosion in a museum killed his mother and put a small, precious oil painting into his possession.
Here is a chronology of how this book won me over, and what to expect, if you read like me:
- At first I was irritated by choppy prose. The voice and metaphors were too erudite for a self-conscious teenager. I didn’t buy into the drama, and had to go back and re-read some passages. It sounded like Donna Tartt talking, a foxy southern intellectual, too clever by half.
- By page 207, the action left New York and I realized I was extremely involved with the character, fearful even. I lost sight of Tartt’s cleverness and began to suspect a cruel streak, which always keeps you going.
- When Theo’s exile ends, he goes back to NYC and finds his perception has changed. I began to think of Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz. So many strange and colourful things happening, it could have been a dream. But the sheer amount of detail and the emotional high stakes were engrossing, oddly paralleled with the role of actual drugs, Rx and street. By this time I was carrying the book everywhere, in case a chance to read came up.
- As Theo takes charge of his life, the first four hundred pages turn out to have been the elaborate scaffolding of a thriller. Guns, parking garage, seedy characters, the classic elements. Impressive, and just the tempo needed to sustain a few hundred pages more.
- I read Part Five in one sitting – actually, lying in bed again. This time Theo’s maturity felt earned, and the beginning made sense. The Goldfinch transcends genre, offering redemption for the characters and a profound meditation on the spiritual quality of art.
Donna Tartt spent ten years writing her third novel, and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her trouble. James Wood took her apart in The New Yorker for relying too heavily on genre elements, being too bulky, commercial. I don’t agree. Neither did anybody on Goodreads.
Tartt’s project is thoroughly modern. The enemies of concentration are so fierce these days that a truly ambitious writer should be praised for taking extreme measures to lure readers into her work and keep them there for as long as possible. The sheer weight of the book, the time it commands, is part of its power. The ending is perfect. Moral, conclusive, open.
Guernica Editions will publish Holy Fools, a novella and two stories by Marianne Ackerman in the fall of 2014. This post appeared originally on The Rover and is posted here with permission from the author.
Photo from a reading with the BBC’s Kirsty Wark, available here.