Curious Rat

New on the Books Page: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

I’ve finally finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and I keep wavering between a 4-star and a 5-star review on Goodreads. On the whole, the book was brilliantly written. As a writer, I learned so much from Tartt’s Dickensian plot turns and her ability to describe a setting or a feeling so vividly, I couldn’t help but see, or smell, or feel the same things the characters were seeing, smelling, and feeling. Tartt is a terrific writer. Without a doubt.

However, this book needed an editor’s hand—a hatchet in some spots, a scalpel in others. Some passages rambled for paragraphs and pages, repeating the same words and phrases throughout to drill a scene into the reader’s skull until he was able to draw it from false memory. I’m pretty sure I have a clearer image of Amsterdam’s many glimmering canals than I’d get from actually traveling there. Minute details were described so thoroughly and frequently, it was hard not to skim over them just to get to the point.

Other times, Tartt left plot points wide open—times when she should have gone into more detail and perhaps reduced her descriptions of rain-soaked streets and the smell of the furniture repair shop where he semi-apprenticed. There’s also the matter of nearly every non-white in the book holding a servient role and working for free or coming in on a day off just to see the main character, Theo (a white male). I don’t know if that was a specific choice on the author’s part, but it did feel awkward and pulled me out of the story.

I don’t mind a long book (The Goldfinch clocks in at 771 pages), but only if the length is warranted. A good editor could’ve knocked out a hundred or so pages and tightened things up significantly. What’s unclear is why an editor didn’t do more. Was it because of Tartt’s reputation and past critical/commercial successes? An “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality? Or was it because of the Margaret Mitchell-ian length of time it took to finish the book in the first place. “She took 10 years to write this. It must be perfect!”

I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is The Goldfinch is definitely worth a read. Tartt’s a true talent and she has weaved a magical, if depressing modern fairytale that should be a lesson to novelists everywhere on several levels. They should study her writing—what she leaves in, what she leaves out, and how they can hone their own manuscripts to be as tight and well-paced as possible.

It was a long, sometimes tedious journey, but one that left me feeling satisfied after I’d turned the final page.