Donna Tartt is an odd fish, isn’t she? Her first book, The Secret History, pretty much changed my life. I absolutely could not believe how awesome it was. I could not put it down and have re-read it several times. The last revisit has burned the ending so strongly into my brain that I want to Eternal Sunshine myself, just so I can experience it for the first time all over again. And then we all waited ten years for her next book, only for her to deliver the universally reviled (and rightly so) The Little Friend.
It’s fair to say that the unmitigated tedium of her follow up has meant that the anticipation of and desire for another novel from her is nowhere near the heights it was in the decade after her debut. But it’s still an event, and The Goldfinch had a lot of noise made about it when it was published in October last year. The reviews were mixed, so it was already doing better than her previous effort. So I decided, what the hell? Let’s see if she can win me back over.
Our narrator is Theodore Decker. When the novel opens, he is thirteen years old and his mother is about to be killed in a terrorist bomb blast in an art museum they’re both visiting. In the aftermath, Theo comforts the dying uncle of the cute red headed girl he was eyeing up before the bomb went off, takes the titular painting and begins a long descent from wayward teen to fraudulent adult with a whopping great drug habit. The journey takes him from the Upper West Side, where he briefly lives with the incredibly rich family whose middle son he is good friends with, to the Lower East Side, where he ingratiates himself with the business partner of the dead uncle, all via Las Vegas, where he lives for a few years with his deadbeat father and befriends a crazy Russian teen named (of course) Boris.
Still with me? Theo keeps the painting with him, paralysed with all kinds of emotions about it, unable to return it or sell it or even look at it, he keeps it under wraps for years on end. And that is the first problem with the book. Apparently it’s full of “thrilling suspense” as Theo is dragged into a “criminal underworld” with his painting. Yet the painting itself disappears for swathes of the book at a time and the underworld doesn’t even begin to feature until about 500 pages in. Instead, we have endless navel gazing from drug addled Theo for pages and pages and PAGES, none of it massively interesting, all of it in need of a ruthless edit. The actual plot revolving around the painting would barely fill an episode of CSI. But the novel is bloated to nearly 800 pages by Tartt thinking her “unforgettably vivid characters” jabbering to each other in broken English is just the most absorbing thing you could possibly ever want to read. It really is not.
It also doesn’t help that Theo is such a charmless tool, so while he is endlessly, relentlessly banging on about whatever situation he finds himself in, you don’t feel any sympathy for or connection with him. I mostly felt varying degrees of impatience or irritation with him as he harped on and on about everything. Similarly, his best friend Boris is the kind of hyperactive idiot you’d avoid at a party, so spending page after page after page reading his witless gabbling just makes you long for someone to stride into the conversation and punch his lights out. And when the actual “criminal underworld” story arc does get going, it’s kicked off by a plot twist so precarious, I don’t know whether to admire Tartt’s daring, or marvel at her stupidity. Either way, it underlines what an absolute dick Boris is and makes it very difficult to accept that Theo wouldn’t just cut his losses and walk away, rather than follow him into the lion’s den.
Speaking of cutting your losses, if you do read this book, in the hope you love it as much as you did The Secret History, ditch it fifteen pages from the end. The final coda is so horribly pretentious and completely unnecessary that any goodwill you might be harbouring towards the book will evaporate. One of the more scathing reviews I read ended with “Remember the suicidally long, dope-fuelled follow-up novel that Grady Tripp is writing in Chabon’s Wonder Boys? Well, guys, here it is.” While I don’t think it’s quite THAT bad, it’s certainly ponderously overwritten and in desperate need of a filleting. But still, it’s better than The Little Friend.