I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although the novel was published in 1992, I didn’t read it until a year or two ago. I found it riveting, and I mentally kicked myself for not having read it earlier. So, I was excited to read Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, who is 13 years old at the beginning of the novel. He and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, admiring the Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch,” when bombs (planted by terrorists) exploded in the museum. Theo’s mother was killed, but Theo survived. In the ensuing chaos, Theo grabbed “The Goldfinch” and took it home with him. He remained obsessed with his stolen possession for the rest of the novel. To Theo, the painting was more than a priceless masterpiece. It represented not only his lost mother, but also the very idea of beauty, of transcendence—of beauty that transcends the grim reality of everyday existence.
The idea of this story sounds compelling, and many parts of the novel ARE compelling However, I have to admit that I found large chunks of the novel rather underwhelming. I found the first section of the novel, when Theo lost his mother and then was taken into a wealthy friend’s home appropriately disorienting. I felt lost, numb and emotionally adrift along with Theo as he tried to adjust to a world without his mother, a world without meaning. Theo then moved to Las Vegas to be with his father and his father’s girlfriend. This Las Vegas section may have been my favorite section. I thought Tartt’s portrayal of the 21st century American West as the American nightmare was brilliant, as was her creation of the Russian character Boris, the waif–thug with a deep streak of alcohol-enhanced sentimentality.
After Theo moves back to New York, however (about half way through the 771 pages), the story loses steam for me. Theo grows up to be an adult, but is still stuck in the same numb haze he was in at age 13. He sleepwalks through life in a haze of drugs, white-collar crime, and unrequited love. I understand that Tartt is portraying someone who is traumatized, that his sleepwalking through life is part of her point. But still, how many hundreds of pages can a reader want to spend with someone who is this numb?
The Goldfinch could have benefited from some serious editing. Tartt could have cut out 300 or more pages without losing anything of importance.
Better yet, I think Theo Decker should have met up with Cheryl Strayed and gone for a hike with her. (See my previous post on Cheryl Strayed here.) Both Theo and Cheryl were traumatized by the untimely loss of their mother. They were both on a downward spiral and needed something to save them. Strayed went on a 1000 mile hike in California. Theo took a lot of drugs and stole money from people (in a complicated, high-end kind of way). Strayed’s plan seemed to work better.
If Tartt had come to me for advice (which for some reason she never did), I would have told her to cut out the return-to-New-York section. Instead of leaving Las Vegas to go east, Theo should sell “The Goldfinch” and use the proceeds to buy some hiking boots and backpacking gear. He should travel slightly west to the Pacific Crest Trail, where he could meet up with Strayed. They could hike together briefly, at least long enough to have some hot sex on a rock. After the sex is over, a goldfinch would appear on the rock. It would land there just long enough to look at them meaningfully and sing a plaintive, yet healing song.
Thus would endeth The Goldfinch.