A Donna Tartt book has become something of a literary event, since her first book A Secret History became an word of mouth success in 1992. Her novels are also rare, they don't come around that often. Its eleven years since A Little Friend, which itself was ten years after her debut novel. So we aren't looking at a prolific novelist, but she is a considered, careful and meticulous one.
So The Goldfinch arrived towards the end of 2013 with all trumpets blaring, and obviously with huge amounts of enthusiasm and expectations riding on it. I read it on my Kindle, and had no real idea how long it was ( over 800 pages apparently). But as the percentage read moved so slowly, it was clear that this novel wasn't much of a page turner.
It does start off with a terrific bang, in both a literary sense and literally in the story. Its main character Theo is at a museum when a suicide bomb is exploded within it. All of the story and characters of the novel stem from the consequences of this one event. This includes The Goldfinch painting by Fabritius, which really exists, and is the only consistent reference point throughout the whole book. Theo's mother is killed in the blast, and the first quarter of the story is an extremely tender portrayal of a young teenager's sense of emotional confusion and sublimated grief. Yet after this dramatic compulsive opening, Tartt is understandably at a loss to maintain the narrative momentum, often lingering too long over drunken drug fueled evenings. Theo passes through a succession of self absorbed and often irresponsible low life friends and relatives, who are often nothing more than underwritten caricatures.
All the while The Goldfinch painting constantly hangs around in the background of the story, which we are led to anticipate will be of some significance. However, we are never given any meaningful sketch of a subtext to hang anything on, let alone the painting. Theo himself is presented as emotionally incoherent, lives in a moral vacuum. and seems incapable of explaining why he does what he does, or why this painting has this hold over him, and he over it. Which makes the ending, where he writes for pages and pages a complete aesthetic confession of why it meant so much to him, all the more unbelievable. Suddenly Theo turns into the most profuse and profound art critic. Its as if Donna Tartt suddenly realises the only thread in her novel has been underused, so she hangs it all rather hurridly at the last minute on the painting. At this point I admit I ran out of patience and skip read through this last chapter.
Inbetween, the whirlwind of an opening, where her writing was undoubtedly dazzling and vivid, and the bloody gansterish botched events in Amsterdam near the end, there is far far too much padding and turgid narrative going nowhere in particular. It maybe Tartt's success has made her impervious to the advice of her editors, or her editors have become too reverential or scared to say 'this is getting a little too long Donna, where is this leading?'. What is left here, is a rather patchy and somewhat palid work, part brilliant, part bland. If this had been her first novel, we might have been more forgiving of its flaws. After three novels spread out over twenty years plus, maybe her fame and the accompanying weight of people's expectations is becoming too much, not only for her, but for us too.