Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Goldfinch | Review

This is a difficult review to write because I feel that The Goldfinch was so far from either the book I expected from positive reviews, and so far from the book I expected from criticism. I found a book that was complex in my own response to it - I may have read it quickly and avidly and very... deeply, but I cannot claim that I liked the book. Overall, I distinctly didn't.

The problem with reviewing The Goldfinch so many months after its publication and sweeping adoration and imminent backlash is that it no longer feels relevant. Is Donna Tartt the "new Dickens"? Is The Goldfinch a stunning work of modern literature, or an overblown mess? Is this quality literature, or pedestrian writing neatly wrapped?

These honestly aren't questions that interest me.

I want instead to discuss how The Goldfinch is essentially four or so books in one. The first is my favorite, and one I actively liked: a novel of a young boy in the aftermath of his mother's death as he tries to maneuver his own emotional turmoil and that of the family who takes him in. This first novel is the story that opens The Goldfinch, and I really enjoyed it. We meet Theo, we get swept up in his drama and follow his lost narrative. It's not the most original story, but Tartt writes it well and I found myself truly feeling for Theo. I liked his agency and I liked the high-style language (which completely did not fit the voice of the narrator himself, of course, but there was something so deliberate about it that it  worked well). As a starter story, it's brilliant - it hooked me and kept up momentum for the rest of the (disappointing) book.

This book ends with little closure, and Theo is instead launched into another part of his life. And from that moment, I felt my dislike of the book settling and I felt myself growing more and more uncomfortable with the narrative.

Remember in my review of Americanah I mentioned that I found myself very disappointed by the use of a specific trope which I especially hate? So The Goldfinch takes another of my most hated storytelling pet peeves, and lives it in full: drug use. Now, to be clear: a lot of The Goldfinch deals directly with drug use. It doesn't show drug use as something without consequence or without hardship, and it doesn't just raise the topic without delving into it. Drug use is a recurring and persistent theme in the novel, one that is furthermore often linked to the artistic theme, if obliquely.

And so yes, Tartt does not merely raise drug use, Tartt seeps her novel in it. And truthfully, the loving tone with which Tartt refers to this copious drug use really disturbed me. If there's one thing that frustrates me in modern culture, it's the absolute normalization of drug use in society. Reading a novel in which drug use is so gently caressed made me wholly uncomfortable. Sue me, I have personal preferences. And these personal preferences colored much of my further appreciation of the novel.

But let me turn back to the separate books. So we have Theo's coming of age spread out across two different books, and then his strange "return to childhood" book (which I frankly found more interesting than his dull and frankly overwritten teenage years). But then the final book... is a total mess. Tartt switches gears quite abruptly at the novel's end, and it suddenly becomes something of a thriller. But it's a pretty poor thriller - I found myself skimming sections which were far too long and deeply descriptive without actually telling me anything new. The Goldfinch thus ends whimpering when it's trying to be bold and decisive, simply because it tries to make a shift into something that just doesn't work. Not that it really could have ended otherwise: the entire novel does feel like a build-up to something. I just didn't expect the something to be so dulled.

There's another thing I feel needs mentioning, as complex an issue as it may be: Tartt's treatment of women. This is something that I've struggled to put into words, but here it is: The Goldfinch writes women poorly, flatly, or not at all. As I was thinking about how to write this review, I found myself imagining words like "masculine" and "male-oriented". The "masculine" term is the more complex of the two (because it's harder to define), but it occurred to me that there is hardly any woman-to-woman interaction in the novel. The book centers around a young man, true, but it centers around him in a way that all but erases women into flat tropes: there's the obvious fridging of his mother, the later treatment of his one-time foster mother, the treatment of his father's girlfriend, the romanticization of Theo's "love", the descriptions of his fiancee as an ice-queen, who gets little agency to prove herself...

And suddenly I had the unpleasant (and frankly unfair) thought that The Goldfinch is so well-regarded because Donna Tartt has written the ultimate "white male novelist" book - full of disaffected men, one-dimensional women, drug use, cigarettes used as mood setters and a brooding young man (from New York, no less!) who is swept up in a story that's much larger than him.

That was when I realized the depths to which I was unhappy with The Goldfinch. Here's a novel that's been touted as this brilliant masterpiece by a woman, yet it's no different than dozens of other similar books (except perhaps in length, where it... trumps). The artistic angle that The Goldfinch claims to come from simply never materializes on the level it deserves. What's left is... meh. Maybe these are connections I'm not allowed to make, but that's where I am right now. I see a familiar novel in place of a revolutionary one, and it's not even a novel I particularly enjoy.

I do want to give Tartt credit where credit is due: I was rightly swept up in The Goldfinch, and the writing is largely top-notch. I'm quite curious now as to whether Tartt's previous works are actually worthwhile, or if they're similarly trapped in familiar tropes and stylings. I sort of understand why many readers enjoyed The Goldfinch as much as they did, and I absolutely understand why many award outlets flung their seal of approval at the book. But I didn't like the book. Not wholly, not as a complete novel. Aspects? Brilliant. Certain pages or observations or descriptive passages? Possibly even genius. A novel on the whole? Nope. Nope nope nope.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for a very honest review - and for voicing some of the concerns that I have with Donna Tartt. I haven't read The Goldfinch, but am not sure I want to, after finding The Secret History so disappointing. Like the curate's egg, it was good in parts, but far too long, didn't hang together very well, found the female characters too colourless or objectified, the characters as a whole or the relationship between them not entirely believable...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, you know, I hadn't thought about it, but you are so right about the women. And it's true in The Secret History too, as devotedly as I love that book (it's one of my all-time favorites). I think I luckily went into The Goldfinch with fairly low expectations (I haaaaaated Donna Tartt's second novel), so I was able to enjoy it tremendously despite its flaws.

    ReplyDelete

Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam.