Literary Review: The Goldfinch

By Alex Van Dehey, Literary Critic

Although “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt is currently in its 46th week on the New York Times’ Best Seller List, suggesting it must have some merit. The book is full of various annoyances that make it difficult to praise: the overly-precocious main character, the incessant use of tired clichés, the combination of an absurd plot and a distressingly simple use of language, and, perhaps worst of all, the forced message slapped on at the end to make the whole story mean something: “art saves.”

While I don’t think this book is deserving of its 2013 Pulitzer Prize and would hesitate to recommend it to anyone with literary taste, I must admit that Tartt has written a good story.

The New York Times called it “Dickensian,” although Dickens was writing for a different time. The postmodern reader may find the overly crafted characters and the idea that art will rescue us from “the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live” too sentimental to swallow.

The stilted plot and its simplistic presentation are actually reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s films, and his ability to craft fantastic stories in a flattened world that have been highly acclaimed. Of course, that’s film, which is an entirely different animal.

If you believe David Foster Wallace’s claim that “TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained [today’s readership] to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations,” then Tartt’s popularity is no surprise. She’s mimicked the fiction of television and film, and this mimicry doesn’t require developed language or difficult structure because that isn’t what her audience is looking for.

“The Goldfinch” is feel-good fiction that’s easy to get lost in, fostering sympathy for Theo’s hardship and facilitating a shallow emotional release without the hard work that real-life pleasure and serious fiction require.

So while I will admit that I anxiously wondered what the dying old man meant when he handed Theo a ring and whispered, “Hobart and Blackwell” in the hellish chaos after the terrorist bomb; felt charmed by the street-smart, hilariously disturbed Ukrainian teenager, Boris; and deeply desired to enter Hobie’s subterranean furniture workshop in the Village, I wouldn’t regret never reading this book any more than I’d regret not watching a series on Netflix.

“The Goldfinch” is entertaining, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then by all means, read it. But if substance and craftsmanship are what you crave, spend your 800 pages elsewhere.

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