Her Name is Tartt, Her Work is Sweet, A Book Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There’s often a natural hesitation accompanying the purchase of an exceptionally lengthy book. Were Ubmerto Eco to weigh in on this sentiment, he’d probably suggest it results from our fear of death; time, after all, is the most finite resource.

No doubt time constraints underlie our eager consumption of reviews, recommendations, and lists: “Top 10 Summer Reads,”“25 Great Classics,” “100 Books to Read Before You Die,” etc. In truth, we are yearning for assurances—guarantees that our finite time is being well spent.

But following this observation to its logical limit produces an obscure result: The longer a book, the better it should be. It’s one thing to be indifferent about a two-page news article; it’s quite another to be disheartened after reading a thousand-page tome.

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1654)

In the case of The Goldfinch by Donna Tart—a literary masterpiece weighing in at 771 pages (Back Bay Books paperback version, 2015)—assurances abound that you are in for one hell of a delightful experience.  A number one national bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Goldfinch is described by Michiko Kakutani of the The New York Times as an “astonishing Dickensian novel . . . that reminds us of the wonderful stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.”

Though it took a moment to adjust to the parentheses-laden narrative spilling forth from the pen of our narrator and protagonist, Theodore Decker, The Goldfinch immediately develops an intense simmering quality that keeps you turning page after page of elegant prose. In a way, its pacing reminds me of the smoldering quality so expertly manifested in the works of John Steinbeck. (Quite ironic considering the protagonist’s description of Grapes of Wrath as being tied with The House of the Seven Gables for “most boring book ever written.” I thoroughly disagree, young Theo.)

Despite its leisurely start, I soon became immersed in the heartache befalling Theodore Decker and burned through 180 pages in my first sitting alone. Early on, Theo recounts (no spoiler here provided you’ve read the cover copy) the crushing loss of his mother. With no father to turn to, Theo begins his unsteady, troubled, drug- and alcohol-infused journey through life.

“If you must rise early, do not bring this book to bed.”

As we follow Theodore from adolescence through adulthood, we are invited to appreciate art—paintings, music, literature, furniture—with a profound reverence. At every stage of his checkered life, Theo finds comfort in the beautiful objects around him. Above all, there is Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, an elegant if elegiac painting that not only lends its title to Tartt’s triumphant masterpiece, but also serves as the object underlying the book’s most thrilling moments.

To readers hesitant to add The Goldfinch to their shelves because of its sheer length, I assure you that spending time with this astonishing literary achievement will not disappoint. But be warned: if you must rise early, do not bring this book to bed.