Dear readers, dear cineastes, I’m going to do what I seldom get to do in my busy life as a film & theater critic, blogger and playwright/director, I am going to review a book. And a BIG book at that. I predict it will make a rollickingly good movie someday with the right director. Some true auteur like David Fincher guiding it and cutting it down to half its’ humongous length.
Donna Tartt set out to write a great novel, but she wrote a great BIG novel. Not the same thing.
Donna Tartt, an acclaimed, best-selling novelist, took ten years to write this GIGANTIC tome. She should’ve taken at least another one to edit it.
Overwritten in the extreme, “The Goldfinch” is like the little girl with a curl.”There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid.”
“The Goldfinch” isn’t really horrid, but it’s just that the last two/thirds of the book don’t live up to the thrill, the excitement,the orginality and the sheer readability of the first three/fifths. So it’s a big disappoint, really.
For in the beginning, of this purposeful try to out-Dickens Dickens, Donna Tartt does succeed in engaging us in the life of her 13-year-old Harry Potter-esque hero, Theodore Decker, who lives blissfully with his beloved mother in the opening chapters of the book in what seems to him a magical New York City at the turn of this new century.
His life with his mother is terrifyingly torn apart by a terrorist blast in the Metropolitan Museum of Art(don’t worry this never happened) but in engaging us in Theo’s torn-apart post-Apocolyptic world, Tartt succeeds mightily. Theo survives. His mother is killed.
We are totally drawn in to the child’s new life under Social Services. His upper East Side adoptive parents, the marvelously well-drawn, wealthy Barbour family, and then feel his terrrible disruption and depression, when his deadbeat dad, whom he hates, turns up to claim him, and he’s dragged off to Las Vegas, by Dad and his new girl-friend a Vegas bar-tender named Xandra.
Mom Decker, Mrs. Barbour and Xandra are all vividly drawn, refreshingly new female characters, and we cling to them the way Theo in various ways tries to, but is always wrenched apart from them by cruel Fate and Circumstance.
The Barbours middle son, Andy, a fellow pre-teen nerd, in New York, is replaced by new best friend Boris, a Russian ne’er-do-well, whose last name we never really learn. Boris is likened to the Artful Dodger in Dickens “Oliver Twist” by Theo himself, and Theo in turn is called “Potter” as in Harry, by Boris.
These are all great characters as is Hobie, the gentle giant of a furniture repair shop in Greenwich Village that Theo improbably hooks up with. And yes, they and a red-haired girl named Pippa, another survivor of The Blast, live together quite picturesquely in Hobie’s Furniture Shop(read Dickens “Old Curiostiy Shop).
Boris and Theo make a fun pair for the books sprawling Western mid-section as they prowl Las Vegas’ strip malls, deserts, high schools and tract houses searching for hot girls and the perfect high, which like is looking for life on Mars. After New York, it’s like an alien moon-scape to Theo, made tolerable only by Boris’ lively presence and fact that none of it reminds him of his beloved mother’s untimely death.
Theo is a classic Dickensian orphan, part David Copperfield, part Oliver Twist, part Pip of “Great Expectations.”
All these deliberate Dickensianisms are all well and good, and are quite charming. And the threats and realities of an orphaned child in the Gothic NYC Welfare system are accurately drawn, and yes, terrifying.
Theo lives in fear of everything that he loves or is at the very least, used to, being ripped from him by ANOTHER catastrophic incident, like his mother was. And I totally identified with him.
My favorite part of “The Goldfinch” is a wild, mid-night, cross-country Greyhound bus ride with Theo, fleeing many demons and threats, real and imaginary. And oh yes, he stole a painting, a Dutch Master “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, in the confusion following the Museum blast.
It’s an actual, real, beautiful Dutch painting of a tiny, sad, little goldfinch cruelly chained to a perch. It’s considered a masterpiece and Theo holds on to it as his secret treasure and reminder of his mom. They were on their way to see it at the Museum the day it exploded.
And Theo’s got it and Xandra’s little dog named Popper with him on this cross-country bus flight that is sooo marvelously and frightening detailed that it really was the high point of the book for me. As he has to keep the painting AND the dog hidden. No dogs on Greyhound. Those are the rules.
But that was only like page 400 or so. And it’s a 771 page GIANT of a book. It’s so heavy to hold it kept giving me arm, hand and back pain and muscle cramps. I’m amazed I got through just holding it to read.
And then, when this electrifying bus ride is over, so is the novel. Whatever else happens, it’s all down-hill from there as Theo grows up into a character I couldn’t relate to.
He was an adorable kid. Why did he have to grow up? And why did Tartt have to keep writing and writing and writing and over-writing. Didn’t she have an editor?
There are many narratively brilliant set pieces, but after Theo grows up, life is nothing but one drug deal after the other, and well, I just didn’t like him or “The Goldfinch” very much in its’ latter portions.
But it has a beautful beginning and a rip-roaring middle and no end.Literally.