V2 | Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (with too many mentions of The Secret History)


It happened in New York, April 10th, nineteen years ago. Even my hand balks at the date. I had to push to write it down, just to keep the pen moving on the paper. It used to be a perfectly ordinary day, but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.”

Note: I accidentally overrode a version of this after posting. Thankfully, WordPress saved the post. Oopsie.

As always, I’m years late in reading a “trendy” book. When The Goldfinch came out in 2013, the hype was (in the tiny world of book-publishing) enormous. Untrendy confession: with an author I’d never read before, and didn’t know if I was likely to enjoy, it just looked too long for me to bother. I don’t mind chunky novels, but they’re an investment: hours upon days upon weeks of time. I want to have some assurance that it will, quite plainly, be worth it.

The Secret History, which I picked up having heard great things, had me in a pleasant vice grip. The characters were both admirable and despicable, and you were drawn into their lives with a sense of fascination which mirrored the protagonists’. It had a clear-sighted view of class, addiction, and thoughtless cruelty with a strong, ornate style of writing, which made the earnestness of the protagonist’s refreshing. It had an obsession with Ancient Greek and Roman myths and writings which mirrored my own (harbored since around age six). It had a carefully built sense of place: the university felt inviting due, but cold. It was really, really good.

With so many of my own favourite topics covered, along with some beautiful, ornate writing, The Secret History unsurprisingly became one of my favourite novels. Tartt had earned my trust. So into The Goldfinch I dove…

There’s an explosion, a theft, and a panic stricken young man, living with horrendous guilt and anxiety, named Theodore Decker. 

There’s a breathless pace (despite numerous plot diversions) which makes The Goldfinch hard to stop reading. Character twists, a great eye for strange details, and a smart sense for just the moment a reader might start to mean that the common abstract sections examining art and the meaning of beauty don’t leave the plot in a quagmire which the novel would struggle to escape from. These are all great qualities, which was frustrating while writing this review as it made it harder to pinpoint why I still got far less out of this The Secret History.

Maybe it’s unfair to make direct comparisons to another novel; maybe The Goldfinch should be evaluated on its own merits. I’m not sure. All I am certain of is that, possibly due to the artifice and coincidences that everything hinges on in The Goldfinch, many sections feel artificial. I didn’t notice at the time but looking back it’s glaring. Everything hinges on coincidences, which may be why many call this novel Dickensian, but you end up feeling almost pulled along from section to section. Reading it was like going on an exceptionally well-made rollercoaster rather than taking a wander through unknown woods, which was the case with The Secret History. It’s as though—if she doesn’t explicitly state themes, or direct your attention carefully during ambiguous interactions—Tartt is fatally afraid you’ll miss something. Half the fun of a novel comes from what you find beneath their surface. By making things so direct, Tartt weakens the ability of the reader to become truly immersed.

While our protagonist is a subdued introvert, side characters are over the top and extremely endearing. Boris, a wild young Russian, is extremely likeable but dangerous, and when Theo becomes friends with him you can tell this will mean trouble. Tartt captures the dynamic of intense young male friendships shockingly well: the bonding over mischief and danger, the in-jokes, the secret languages, the itch to do something that could end incredibly badly just because you can. Hobie is a charming, fuzzy headed furniture dealer who comes across in his benevolence almost Father Christmasesque—still, he has his complications and blind spots. There’s also a love interest named Pippa who unfortunately never feels quite as fleshed out as those around her; her role is by design to be mysterious, but I never got a sense of revelation about who she was even when I got the sense I was supposed to.

The Secret History’s cast were emotionally stunted narcissists, but you would want to spend actual time with people from The Goldfinch. That’s part of why I wish I loved this book instead of just like it: I want to be compelled to come back and live with the characters again. If The Secret History was cold, with an emotionally reserved cast of characters and an obsession with the past—not to mention heaps of actual snow—the Goldfinch is warm.  It’s the warmth of a house with a fire going after you’ve come in from rain. If that sounds annoyingly abstract, I understand, but trying to convey the mood of a novel almost 900 pages long and taking place over such a long period is necessarily vague. Theo lives in a world with people and places he defines by whether or not they instill a sense of comfort in him. He’s searching for a place that lets him feel like he belongs, continuingly going back to a kindly old Hobie. 

I probably sound like I don’t like the book, but I do. A lot. There are some beautiful reflections about art and the way it can impact your world, for example:

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

Maybe I got the secret whisper from The Secret History and not The Goldfinch because it appealed to my personal interests more, or maybe because I value ambiguity more than straight-headed storytelling. Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think The Goldfinch is a very strong, well-paced novel with a great atmosphere, but it’s so on-the-nose with its themes that it become difficult to connect with on a truly personal level, which is a shame. It yells instead of whispering.

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