The Goldfinch: All it’s Cracked Up to Be

As a loud and proud feminist, this is the worst thing I will ever say. (Yes, leave it to me to think of the worst thing I will ever say and then immediately put it on the internet.) I finished The Goldfinch before even looking to see who the author was, and I was shocked to learn it was written by a female.

I had a discussion with a very forward-thinking teacher once about why I don’t like female writers as much as male ones, historically. He, too, very much resented himself for feeling like male authors seemed to create more depth in their work. But, as ashamed as it made us, it just seemed true. There are glowing exceptions, of course (Eliot, Chopin, the Brontes), but even they seemed to have heteronormative-relationship-driven plots, with romance being at least one of the major (if not the) key theme. In fact, I think this is why I resented Anna Karenina. It seemed to me a very “female author” book–all about man-woman pairings and dynamics. I think about Whitman’s claim that he contained multitudes, and it seems to be the anti-anthem of the novelists I don’t like (who, unfortunately, often tend to be women). “I contain the potential for romance” seems to be the driving force behind it all.

We have been and are entering a new era of women writers. I don’t know why, after reading books from Jennifer Egan and Toni Morrison, I still have lower expectations. But The Goldfinch solidifies it. This is a deep and rich book that explores so many facets of human existence, with an absolutely riveting plot the whole way through. It’s multidimensional and complex psychologically while carrying with it a story that captivates. The climax of the book went on forever, and I got four hours of sleep one night because I couldn’t put it down. In fact, this whole enormous book was enrapturing the entire way through. In fact (x 2), the reason I haven’t posted about it yet is because I accidentally started reading the whole thing again. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be back in this world of multitudes.

Have you heard anything about the book? There was a lot of hype around it. Let me say, the Pulitzer will not lead you astray here. Every bit of the hype is well-founded. I can’t say enough about how good this book is. It’s the realest, freshest thing I’ve read since…oh…well, since Crime and Punishment. But still…

First off, this book even the sentence level is fresh. You know what’s really hard to do without entering cliche-land? Similes. Try writing a simile that doesn’t sound like bad poetry. Do it, right now. I’ll wait.

It was bad, wasn’t it?

This book is filled with similes that are gorgeous and vibrant and don’t stick out as similes. Here is where I would put examples, but I’ll just make that another post if need be. This sucker’s gonna be long enough.

Second of all, the book paints so many beautiful portraits of people, and it does so by showing, not telling. The main character is a prime example of this.We get to know him so well, and yet we don’t even understand what the goldfinch painting held so dear by the narrator means to him. Not even he knows, really. It just does, for reasons seemingly obvious but that will escape articulation if we try to explain it. Again, deserves an entire post in itself. Every one of the characters is complex and yet understandable, even the bit players like Tom Cable.

Third, author Donna Tartt does the passage of time so amazingly well. There is an “eight years later” jump at one point, but I think it helps character development. All of a sudden, our poor hero is in an unexpected place, and we learn how he got there. It all makes perfect sense, yet it’s surprising. The most amazing example of the passage of time is the way the author explains the development of what winds up being the extremely close friendship between the main character and Boris in Las Vegas. It develops naturally and beautifully. Speaking as someone who has a friendship very much like the one described in the book, the coverage of the time was so natural and the closeness that developed made so much sense. It all rang authentic in my mind. That, like the non-cliched simile, is very, very hard to pull off.

But my main takeaway from this book is that, even though the world of The Goldfinch is a fairly sad one, it’s a place I love to be. It envelops me. It rings true and real and beautiful. It’s heartbreaking without being sentimental, and it’s raw without being dramatic.The Goldfinch doesn’t pull any punches. It’s as complicated and involving as it is without gimmicks.

Clearly, this is a vague overview. I haven’t really said much of anything about the book. This is a real challenge for me to write about because it’s like someone asking me to try to describe my existence on this planet in a blog post. I’d just be left dumbfounded. There’s too much, far too much. The Goldfinch contains multitudes, and all we can hope to do it examine it piece by piece, I think. The whole of it is too far beyond words. That the author created these multitudes in the 700+ pages of this book is an impressive feat in itself. 700 pages wouldn’t be enough for me.

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