I’m not usually a Grinch, but it seems that I’ve just decided to write a not-so-good review to a book I thought I’d love. This is your warning, if you don’t need me ruining your Christmas with my rant about poorly written (female) characters and lack of depth, just go. But don’t forget to bookmark this for when you want to enjoy my (maybe) too subjective critique. There are some spoilers in the next part – though some uninteresting ones that don’t really spoil anything, but you might still want to stop reading here. (This is the second time I’m asking you to just go. Is this self-sabotage?)
I will start by saying I really enjoyed reading the book and thought the plot was generally captivating and at certain moments really smart. This is the story of a famous painting stolen/saved by a teenager from an explosion, solely because it was his mom’s favourite piece of art. She dies in the same explosion and the book revolves around Theodore Decker, her son, and his coming-of-age story.
I think that’s all I have to say about the positive aspects of this book. The story is a crucial consideration, dare I say the main one for most readers and this is why The Goldfinch has been repeatedly praised – by friends and press and librarians in any bookshop. For me, the amount of attention it received a couple of years ago when it was translated in my native language only made my expectations unnaturally high so it was bound to disappoint me. This is the list of things that bothered and annoyed me:
- Ok, I said that the plot was generally good, but there’s something I have to say. Why is death almost the only event that makes the action move forward? The whole story is generated by the death of Theo’s mom and then all the novelties in his life come due to his dad’s death and, some time after that, his friend’s death. I agree that death is a natural part of life and it shouldn’t be totally avoided, but it seemed that it was overused. This made sure that any changes that happened were sudden and without a deeper meaning. It might be just Tartt’s favourite trick or a way of covering that she’s not very good at writing about how life usually looks like in more ordinary circumstances, but maybe she could try to diversify a bit.
- What is wrong with those characters? At the beginning, I was really mad about the fact that there were no female characters that had any more attributes than those strictly necessary to hold the story together. Needless to say, the book is far from passing the Bechdel test. The depiction of non-Americans is also very superficial – they are just stereotypes. Even Boris, a mixed background character (mainly East-European), which is one of the main characters is portrayed only based on his background as an immigrant: strong accent, violent dad, reading Dostoyevsky as a teenager and dealing drugs and getting into the shadiest businesses as an adult. There’s always a condescending attitude towards anything that’s different from the American norm, be it Dutch, English or Ukrainian. In the end, I just realised that all the characters are badly written: Theo is defined by his obsessions with a painting and a girl, Andy is shy and weird, Hobie is the the nice, generous and forgiving man, Pippa is just amazing, but we don’t know anything about her apart from that – we get a hint that she’s a good listener at some point and that’s why she stands out from the other women, because she makes Theo feel important. Each character is just a couple of adjectives and there’s no hint they are actually complex human beings and not accessories to Theo’s life.
- Does Tartt really think we’re stupid? I always felt that there was a bit of unnecessary explaining everywhere, like I was reading a first draft and that editing would take out all that babbling (which made the book so close to 1000 pages, when it didn’t really need more than half of that). The last chapter was too much for me. It’s just like an essay which explains everything, what we should take away from the story, what everything means, no flexibility allowed, no imagination required. It’s as if the writer thought that by the end of the 800 pages, no one would have the energy to think for themselves and reflect on the book. I probably would have been a lot more lenient if the ending left me in a better mood. But it didn’t and I cannot begin to understand why Tartt wouldn’t let her story have a new life in the perception of each of its readers, instead of having a plain general image that everyone shares, but nobody feels as they own it. Tartt blocked here the crucial conversation between the piece of art and its audience and this is probably the only thing all great books have. People might get over imperfect plots and characters, but they can’t get over the lack of connection.
All these being said, I must admit my hypocrisy – my criticism doesn’t change my enjoyment while reading the book. There are books that I enjoyed much less but gave better reviews. This is probably just my pedantry that makes me appreciate a great literary technique or deep psychological implications, even in the absence of a real story, while not being very excited at the sight of a good story which lacks everything else.
I really want to read the other books Donna Tartt wrote so as to see how these compare to The Goldfinch and decide if the issues I’ve discussed here are particular to this book or not.
Sorry for being that one negative person on your Facebook News Feed on Christmas, but how would you appreciate all the positive vibes out there without me?