Someone Please Explain Why The Goldfinch Is So Good

By brian longtin • Feb 10th, 2014 • Category: reading • Popularity: 8%

For most of this novel we’re stuck following a person who has no goal, no dream, no quest. And his seeming not to care what happens to him enough to do anything about it, ever, made it impossible for me to care either.


I did not enjoy Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Critics and friends have praised it highly. That and the premise — a young man’s life changed by the death of his mother and a painting that falls into his possession, and the chaotic years that spiral out from that moment — intrigued me enough to dive in. But somewhere near the middle, aside from some annoyance at a tendency to describe in ten pages what could have been conveyed in two, I asked myself, “What am I missing?”  I was not having the epiphany I’d been hoping for. If after 300-plus pages the book still hadn’t got its hooks in me, maybe it never would. But why not?

By the 500th or so page I’d figured out the core problem: the protagonist doesn’t want anything. Yes, Theo Decker desires a few things. A stable family. The painting he associates with his mother. More drugs. And admittedly, the thing he seems to want most, the girl he pines for, provided some of the book’s best scenes. But for most of this novel we’re stuck following a person who has no goal, no dream, no quest. He bounces from one sad state to another with little aim. He avoids mishaps and catastrophes by the luck of a friend or family member being in the right place at the right time (most of which turn around and cause the next tragedy). But for the most part (and even in the case of the love of his life), he doesn’t take a single considered action to pursue a purpose of his own. His lack of agency, his seeming not to care what happens to him enough to do anything about it, ever, made it impossible for me to care either.

That’s the whole point!, one might argue. Life is a series of unfortunate events and we simply tumble from letdown to heartache to horror, powerless to slow this grim descent. If so, the philosophical closing chapter addressing art and beauty and love as life’s only redeeming qualities feels even more unearned — an uplifting soliloquy delivered by someone who had no such realization at any point during the book’s actual events. A last-minute reflection summing up the unchronicled months between the story’s conclusion and the book’s final pages. Why not take us on that emotional journey of realization, instead of wallowing in 750 pages of misery before skimming over what caused this great change in worldview? Why not have those values be his savior at some point during the action of the book, instead of a surprise influx of cash, the convenient reappearance of an old friend, or some other twist of fate?

Normally I enjoy books about disaffected men struggling with the seeming pointlessness of life. I could point to a dozen on my shelf right now from Lethem to Yates, Netherland to The Stranger. But in this case I think the problem was that there was no struggling on the part of our narrator. He wasn’t trying to figure anything out, he just floated through it in a depressed haze. Unless someone can explain why I should feel otherwise, it’s a haze I’m grateful to be out of.

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6 Responses »

  1. To quote from your review: “Why not take us on that emotional journey of realization, instead of wallowing in 750 pages of misery before skimming over what caused this great change in worldview? Why not have those values be his savior at some point during the action of the book…”
    This is exactly what Tartt did. I think you somehow managed to read the book without reading it. Theo so much as says explicitly that “Amsterdam was my Damascus.” Not the money. You say that the closing is a “soliloquy delivered by someone who had no such realization at any point during the book’s actual events.” Did you skip the entire section he was holed up in the hotel in Amsterdam? How did you miss all that? That was it - the moment you’re saying didn’t happen. And sure it happened over pages and pages of descriptive detail about his emotions, state of mind, circumstances, environment, ambient sounds, small interactions… Because realizations of profound things, life changing moments, so often happen in a space of mundanity occurring in crisis. Some people might even miss such a moment, I guess, if they aren’t paying attention. And the last 20 pages of the book are pretty much a dialectical exercise attempting to basically explain “the point” of the book. If anything, I was almost a bit annoyed at the “teaching moment” turn it took at the end. Almost. I thought Tartt did a good job of still giving it depth and real-ness. To each his own - it’s one thing to simply not like a story or characters or the writing style. But it’s strange when the reasons you state for disliking it are almost readily disputable by simply citing pages numbers from the book.

  2. Here’s the answer to your question, from a reviewer who sums things up so exactly perfectly right. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/568217747?book_show_action=true&page=1

  3. Thanks for the response, Sarah. I think you make some great points, and I agree, the sequence where Theo hits bottom in the hotel was certainly the most emotionally honest and revealing about his character. I think my major frustration comes from the fact that it takes place so late in the game. At that point we’ve been through the initial tragedy, life with the Barbours, hit time in the desert with Boris, his return trip, his life with Hobie both before and after Kitsey, Boris’s sudden return, and a major crime sequence. All that stretches on for so long before I saw Theo as anything more than a sad, lonely kid drifting along with circumstances wherever they take him, and never understanding what drove him or what he really cared about, I wasn’t properly invested or connected to care as much as I should about his transformation or revelation.

    In fact, what you say above: “And the last 20 pages of the book are pretty much a dialectical exercise attempting to basically explain “the point” of the book. If anything, I was almost a bit annoyed at the “teaching moment” turn it took at the end.” You say almost but not quite, but this is exactly how I felt. “The Point” was saved to the end, but not reflected in the (very long) journey we’d been on until then. At least not in a way that really affected me.

    I know lots of people loved this book, and I value any chance to discuss why. Even if it didn’t work for me emotionally, I know there’s lots there (obviously) worth discussing and reflecting on!

  4. The first few chapters were well written, felt very real, but after that none of the characters seemed alive to me
    except the boy, the girl, and the old man as he lay dying.
    Maybe that was because I heard it on audio. I could see nothing redeeming in many of the characters even, sordid, pitiful, weak. And it was much too long. I think I heard on NPR or somewhere that it took ten years to write. It needed ten more to edit.
    I can’t imagine why you or anybody else should like it. Especially I thought the last 20 pages were an exercise for the author trying to say something memorable.

  5. I agree with Brian on this one. Theo was endearing at first, but once he was in Vegas with his father and Boris, I stopped liking ANY of the characters and could not care what happened. I stuck it out until the end because that’s what I do with books, but I think the author’s didactic presentation at the end was intrusive.
    I recommend The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell.

  6. I totally agree with Brian . This book came to me on strong recommendations from two friends who are avid readers. I had avoided it because of its length, but decided to plunge in after the recos. I’m still with theo and Boris in Las Vegas and just don’t see the point of it and don’t find it all that engaging or interesting. Can’t read more than 20 pages or so at a time. I’m completely out of sync with all the reviewers obviously.

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