Not my kind of birdsong

The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt
784 pp (paperback). Back Bay Books. $20.

To my dismay, the list of books I want to read never shrinks, but only grows longer with each passing year.

Many of these books are sitting in shelves at home, having been picked up at bookstores in various places, and many more I’m pained to admit likely won’t ever be read at all. Occasionally, I’ll find out that a movie is being made of one of these books. That usually spurs me to action, as I can’t stomach seeing a film knowing that there is a well-regarded book that it’s been adapted from.

You can scarcely have missed the recent release of “The Goldfinch”, splashed as it was on banners and promos all September on reader friendly sites like Goodreads. It was also, I learned later, widely opined to be terrible. But by that time I’d already started the book.

I nearly gave it up as I didn’t quite like how things began, but I pushed on and eventually got sucked in. It helped that it had won the Pulitzer along with a host of other literary awards, so it didn’t seem like some mere airport novel trying to be something more.

At the time.

While I love longer books, I’ve written before about how important it is for longer books to justify their length. “The Goldfinch”, in my opinion, doesn’t. 300+ pages could have been cut with nothing lost. Time spent on pages that should have been left on the cutting room floor when I could have been reading something else leaves me feeling quite irritable. 

But yes, it is a very readable book. The writing is pretty good and most of the time I forgot I was turning pages. But there are several moments when characters disappear far too conveniently. Too many resolutions feel unearned and rushed. Rushed, despite this being a 771-page book. 

To top things off, the characters aren’t likable. In fact, they are rather unlikable. Our protagonist, Theo (Like Van Gogh, get it? Because this is a book about great art posing as great art) comes off as pretentious as his name, and the less said about his Ukrainian buddy Boris the better. 

Initially promising subplots fizzle nearly as soon as they’re introduced. (I’m thinking particularly of the man who shows up at the door of Theo’s home in Las Vegas looking to run down Theo’s debt-ridden father.)

It’s all trying to say something, perhaps a bit too obviously, about art and beauty and freedom and all those important things, but it comes out as such a whimpered, strangled gasp that it almost seems like the author just gave up in the end. This is the kind of stuff that wins the Pulitzer these days? 

“The Goldfinch” is a perfectly pleasant, 400-page airport novel bloated into an unwieldy, self-important, nearly 800-page Pulitzer Prize winner. 

Maybe I should have just watched the film.

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