No novel has been quite as polarizing in the 21st-century literary world as Donna Tartt’s 2014 novel The Goldfinch. Both celebrated and disparaged, it nonetheless won Tartt the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, who herself holds a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, lauded it as a “glorious, Dickensian novel ... a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.” On the other end of the spectrum, The Sunday Times of London was not very fond of the novel, referring to the work as a “turkey.”
The novel follows teenager Theo Decker as he struggles to find his place and identity following his mother’s tragic death in an art museum bombing. Every unfortunate event which happens to Theo seems to result from his mother’s untimely death. As Theo travels and grows, the one true constant in his life is his stolen copy of Fabritius' painting The Goldfinch, which he took from the museum after the bombing and is never quite able to return.
The book’s most instantly notable qualities are its length and prose. The book runs for 773 pages – an understandable length for such a sprawling story, but still quite a hefty read. Still, the novel’s prose is its most immediately-enticing aspect. Tartt manages to capture the most mundane moments of growing up with such poetic ease that it often leaves the reader feeling intimately seen. The most trivial events take priority over the dramatics of Theo’s situation in a way that makes even the most alien and extreme events feel relatable. When Theo is forced to leave his home in New York for the suburbs of Las Vegas, more detail is dedicated to the scenery while he drives from the airport than to the total upheaval of his life. When Tartt illustrated that car ride, I could nearly feel my face pressed against the window. These are the moments that make The Goldfinch special.
The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age story and thus exists in a heavily oversaturated market. There are thousands of books about transience and youth, of struggles to reach maturity among tragic events. But to me, The Goldfinch easily stands out among the countless titles. The familiar format and easily understandable side characters allow Tartt to create a beautiful illustration of the mundane in Theo’s life. The sturdy canvas that the coming-of-age genre provides is the perfect backdrop for her intensely detailed art.
Although I find immense value in the coming-of-age story, many critics found it to be the novel’s greatest fault: While they found Tartt’s prose beautiful, they found the overall story uninspiring. The Paris Review criticizes Tartt’s characterization: “does not undo any cliches – [but] it deals in them”. In my opinion, The Paris Review has entirely missed the point of the story with such a sentiment. The novel intentionally, explicitly, deals in clichés and an overdone format, precisely as its canvas for an intensely detailed world.
With The Goldfinch, Tartt brought new life and inspiration to the coming-of-age genre and showed there is still much depth to be explored. Don’t let the novel’s overdone genre distract you from its genius. It is the perfect book for anyone who has become jaded by stories of youth, and it will help you find the magic of the relatable once again.