Donna Tartt’s Novel is Sticky: The Goldfinch (The Pulitzer Reviews)

I wish that I loved this book. I really really wanted to love this book and have this be best book I’ve read this year, but it oversold its own depth and the result was disastrous. As I read this, I wavered between deep interest and profound annoyance.

The story is very penetrative– it delves pretty deeply into human nature. The best way to describe the plot is that it’s “sticky”– sometimes in a good way, other times in a frustrating way. Some of the devices Donna Tartt uses are great and full of potential, other times the way Tartt utilizes narrative to call attention to the greatness of the themes in her novel, is truly cringe-inducing. Tartt knows that she is crafting an intricate novel; she knows this is award fodder and underlines this continually. She skillfully draws parallels between art and literature, turns the human condition into something concrete through art, extends complex metaphors by the crafting and preservation of antiques to the fine textures of a human life led.

Yes, these are all great accomplishments. I am genuine when I say that I marvel at her craft and ability to do this. IF ONLY I could reconcile this with her writing style. Granted, I have not read her other two novels so I do not know if this is true of her previous works, but the verbose language became too much to handle for me.

Many passages in this book were like enormous buttercream frosted layer cakes of descriptions with too many adjectives; the layer cakes themselves covered in carefully-crafted handmade sugar ornaments in intricate shapes and forms, the kind from the bakery around the corner that was run by a thickset garrulous French-born pâtissier who spoke with an accent that surely indicated he was from Lyon, made where the frosting was the kind that melted on your tongue in just the perfect way, while the cakes covered in fondant created an unimaginable feeling of pleasure as one swallowed the sweet sugary multi-colored, sometimes-patterned dough.

… and that was just a taste (no pun intended) of Tartt’s style. Unfortunately, nobody ever told this woman that sometimes less is more. And just as the the language was overwrought, the plot was, too.

There were parts that I truly loved– I thought that Theo’s turbulent teenage years in Las Vegas were well-written. They captured his development into the troubled young man we meet later in the book. It was the heart of the book; it’s the part I found most compelling and the part that felt most true. Other elements of the book felt strangely anachronistic. It’s already very Dickensian (though most people are sick of this overused comparison) in that Theo is showered in misfortune much in the way of David Copperfield, but the similarities strike even closer– a collector of oddities (The Old Curiosity Shop), orphans (Oliver Twist), an unrequited obsession with a female character (Great Expectations). But the art world, the New York high society that felt almost straight out of a Baroque novel, felt so unreal juxtaposed with the raw free-floating existence in Las Vegas that Tartt captured so expertly. I found it too hard to reconcile the two, as his life at Hobie’s simply did not feel credible. But this isn’t the biggest problem for me– the storyline itself lead us through so many twists and turns, that the book was really more of a fairy tale than the story of a boy’s life. But even if these convenient contrived coincidences were her modus operandi from the very beginning, this reader, did not buy into it.

The last portion deals in clichés. She essentially has our protagonist force feed us readers what she wanted us to take away from her novel by having him sum up “what he has learned” and thus, what we, her audience should have learned. Donna Tartt is the Barry Bonds of novelists– she’s earned the right to congratulate herself, but is so in love with her own ability to craft and write that she loses me.
Here’s a quote that kills me: “Every piece of art is a self-portrait.”
if that is true, Donna Tartt is telling us through her novel that she thinks of herself as a literary genius. Let me get “meta” on this and say that this last self-referential statement was the last straw for me.

One short last statement from me:

Dear Donna Tartt: you are absurdly pretentious with a ridiculously inflated ego.

Dear Pulitzer Committee: I’m starting to lose faith in you. Have you read The Emperor’s New Clothes? I thought all you critics would know better. Go sit on the time-out chair until you remember the moral of the story and understand what you did wrong. In the meantime, I’m going back to reading the Booker Prize-winners.

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