“Have you read the Goldfinch?” This Vanity Fair article suggests it’s the cocktail party opener of the summer.
I’m pleased to report that hasn’t been my observation in Canada, where I have spent the summer, but true enough in my close circles that I have expended some time and social capital trying to convince several people close to me that they should finish it. The eye-rolling! When I started reading it, it was at the urging of one of these people, who thought the book’s opening was terrific. For me, the first two hundred pages, while intriguing enough, were YA–not in the surprising, delicious way of the many children’s novels I love, but in a formulaic, slightly calculated way. Donna Tartt’s characters, in that long opening sequence, were cardboard cut-outs of of angels or devils; and there were many capital-E Events, deaths and moves and mysterious instructions, all laying themselves down so that later Events could be built upon them. Finally, this one guy, Boris, enters, and things get more complicated, and thus more literary. The book is full of rich metaphors, deployed appropriately for setting and atmosphere, and also, less effectively, for characters (offering less insight than amusement). But at least in this regard–sentence to sentence, one central way Americans like to rate the literary value of their novels–it is first rank. The rest, I admit, is closer to second.
I finished it primarily because the plot compelled me, twisting and turning in a way rare in literary fiction if not uncommon in mystery novels (“But it’s not even a second rate mystery novel,” said one of my quitting friends. “Mystery novelists keep it tight.”) I finished it secondarily because it won the Pulitzer. It raised my curiosity. Several recent Pulitzer winners–Junot Díaz, Adam Johnson, Louise Erdrich–have showed a novelistic purpose akin to nobility in their books’ intellectual and/or formal daring. Tartt’s? Again, meh. (“It’s worse because her first two novels were so good,” said another quitting friend. “I had expectations.”)
So I had expectations, perhaps unfair, as expectations often are, that this novel would break some literary barriers I hadn’t known were there. I wasn’t sorry I finished it, but it was a grim sort of triumph (the novel gets noticeably worse in its last 100 pages), so that I wasn’t able to summon the conviction needed to convert my friends. Instead, I summarized the plot to relieve any remnants of curiosity they had salvaged from their fatigue. Then they dusted their hands and moved on.