19 January 2017

Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To be honest right off, first person narration is something I find problematic and difficult, something too susceptible to the hothouse cleverness of writing school. That's not to say that a first person narrator cannot succeed. David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Rebecca, and Lolita are only a few examples of where it succeeds quite well.

First person narration adds an extra layer of difficulty to the author's already difficult task: with a first person narrator not only does the story have to be interesting, but so does the narrator. An uninteresting narrator -- which is not at all the same as an unlikable or an unreliable one -- has great difficulty carrying the story. And The Goldfinch is a long and difficult story, not without flaws of its own, for a narrator like Theo Decker who is not very interesting to have to carry alone.

The pity is, that Theo is at his most intriguing as a child whose mother has been killed in a terrorist bombing, and whose runaway alcoholic wastrel of a father looms offstage like the bad plot device that he is. Once his father (predictably) returns to claim him and take him to (where else?) Las Vegas, Theo devolves into just another teenager with a bad plot device for a father. He drinks, he drugs, he steals. He's just like his father, and only he doesn't know it yet.

When Theo's father dies in -- yes -- a drunk driving accident, and Theo flees back to New York City, he does become somewhat more interesting again, but not that much. Even at the end of the book, once the plot has resolved itself and Theo has revelations about life and beauty, he simply must blather on about them like someone who has read The Brothers Karamazov too many times in the middle of the night in his dorm room. It's not that what he says is not worth saying or pondering. He just takes so long to say it.

I would have found Theo a frustrating character if someone else had been telling his story -- almost very interesting, but not quite; almost very likable, but not quite. But in the narrator, those qualities work against the book. He reminds me of Pip from Great Expectations, interesting and likable as a child, but dull and vexing as an adult. Because his excesses start so early, by the time he is an adult they are merely tiresome.

Now some, like Stephen King, have used "Dickensian" to describe The Goldfinch. There certainly are a lot of orphans, and characters like Hobie and Pippa and (in a strange way) even Boris could slip into Dickens' world. So far so good. But that's about as far as I think the comparison goes. The wealthy Barbour family are a case in point. They take Theo in after his mother's death, and seem about to adopt him when his father shows up to take him away. Some years after Theo returns to New York, he becomes involved with them again.

Now if Dickens had brought them back into the story, as he would have done, he would have done something with them that would not have been better left out. There would have been some astonishing, unexpected moment where you learned something heartbreaking that you'd never guessed. For example, in Bleak House, Lady Dedlock flees her home and dies because she fears her husband's reaction to discovering the indiscretions of her youth, but he is shattered by her leaving. He doesn't care what she did long ago; he just loves her and wants her back. You don't see that coming. But in The Goldfinch the Barbours return for no reason that justifies all the time the story spends on them. They're just there, rich and blandly dysfunctional.

The story does end better than I had begun to fear it would. I was never really expecting a happy ending, but by page five hundred I was dreading that the denial of the happy ending might be delivered in a needless act of authorial tyranny. I am glad to say that did not happen.

Despite all this the novel does have its good points. Hobie and Boris in particular are excellent characters, and Tartt does a good job of portraying Theo and Pippa and Boris at different ages. In many ways the most interesting thing about Theo is the way his style changes over time, to reflect that the character was supposed to have begun writing this story as a teenager and continued as he grew older. That's nicely done. The story works overall. It has some nice twists and turns, two of which made me laugh out loud.

And there are moments when the prose possesses rhythm and beauty:

"Down narrow streets we wandered, damp alleys too narrow for cars, foggy little ochreous shops filled with old prints and dusty porcelains. Canal footbridge: brown water, lonely brown duck."

So I would give this book a tough three stars, because I cannot give it two and a half or three and a half. There is much in here that is very good, but could have been great.

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