The Goldfinch – writer versus reader reviews

As a writer, I gasped in awe and groaned with envy; as a reader I was anxious, sickened and maddened.
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As a writer: I acknowledge The Goldfinch as a masterpiece. The scope is vast, the subject matter complex and requiring much detailed research. The writing itself is a delight, bringing all the senses alive moment by moment. I can only envy the mastery that enables Donna Tartt to use every word in her vocabulary. She describes small events over several pages rarely boring the reader or (presumably) causing her editor to asked for a 20,000 word chop. Even the simplest description is luxurious:

The sun didn’t seem to rise until about nine in the morning and even then it was hazed and gloomy, casting a low, weak, purgatorial light like a stage effect in some German opera.

She has superb control of tempo and keeps the tension ratcheted up, even while taking long descriptive detours. This is, as reviewers have noted, a Dickensian novel. It is also, as a friend pointed out, a magnificent, classical tragedy – a single blow of fate that then tangles the protagonist, and all who come in contact with him, in a network of misfortune. The ending, however, varies from the classical pattern.

In the last 70 or so pages, the three main characters step out of role and the authorial voice whispers and then starts shouting. In fact the whole of the end, as my friend again pointed out, tells of it’s American origins and the American reader’s expectations. The ending is, in many ways, satisfying, but, as a writer, I would judge it to be unbelievable.

As a reader: The Goldfinch was the kind of book I most dislike. It cleverly and intentionally kept me in a state of mild panic through most of it’s 700 odd pages. I’m sorry to be a wuss, but I don’t like sustained anxiety, aggression, cruelty, aggravated stupidity and characters who persist in being their own worst enemies. I have an enduring fondness for classical tragedy, yet in such tragedies the reader usually occupies a seat next to the gods, looking down on the piddling struggles of the humans caught in the net of fate. You watch them, unable to help, yet able to learn, at the very least, the meaning of hubris. In the Goldfinch, we are asked to hold hands with the protagonist and share in every misguided decision he makes, to experience his loss, his fear, his persistent bad luck and his stupidity. To be moved by a character’s fate, I need to feel love or compassion. I did indeed feel compassion, but few of the characters inspired love and the compassion was drowned out by irritation and fear.

So The Goldfinch was, to me, a very grand, ambitious, literary thriller – but a thriller nonetheless and I sincerely dislike being ‘thrilled’. The essence of being thrilled is to induce fear in the reader. To some this is a form of bone-shivering delight; for me it is acute discomfort. I will accept acute discomfort when reading accounts of the sufferings of Far East POWs, but not in a piece of fiction.

If you get this far you may wonder why I persisted in reading this book. It was a present from a dear friend and both he, and others, have remarked that the opening to my novel Unseen Unsung (2008) has much in common with the opening, the section on the explosion, of The Goldfinch (though mine is just half the length).

32 thoughts on “The Goldfinch – writer versus reader reviews

  1. Shit, you’re a good reviewer, Hilary ! You should be doing this professionally for some newspaper or magazine: you do it much better than most acknowledged reviewers.
    And I DETEST a book in which (1) I see carefully constructed writing; and/or (2) I can’t empathise with the protagonist/s – I’m totally with you, there. I would never read this book.

  2. I also dislike extended thrillers that require me to be thrilled for 700 pages. Gentle Wimsey-ish, yes. In a Harriet sort of vein. But that’s it. I can barely cope with a Blandings saga. If it were really about a bird I would tackle it. And Donna Tartt? I’m sorry but I couldn’t read a book by someone named Tartt. It’s almost as ludicrous as Wodehouse.

  3. Interesting thoughts here, Hilary. Funnily enough, I didn’t think of it as a thriller while reading it.
    I did think it got rather ludicrous towards the end in Amsterdam, though. I posted a review of this book on Goodreads a while back and thought of rehearsing it a little here, but it was too long.
    So I’ve posted the review on my blog, something I have never done before. I can always remove it after a few days.

  4. I’ve stayed away from reading this, quite deliberately. but I hope to do it during December, when I hope to be on an extended break. I think I would be thankful for having read this post, once I start reading the book!

    • I pretty much agree with you. I was more impressed by the writing at the start, and tried to hold onto that as I read. I felt my reaction to much of it was due to personal distaste for the thriller genre. I am also painfully aware of my weaknesses as a writer.

  5. Hilary, what a clever review. I really liked how you reviewed the book from two different perspectives. No doubt, Donna Tartt is a masterful writer but I found myself wanting to finish it already…:)

    • Interesting, the friend who thought the ending overdone (but loved the rest) may have been right in their guess that American readers would love the explanatory unwinding. I liked these pages because they were no longer violent or anxiety-inducing, but I did feel they went out of character. The author, not the protagonist, was speaking.

  6. Hilary, what a great review. It seems many have become immune to anxiety, but like you, there’s only so much one can take in reading for pleasure!
    By the way, I have added you on my list in the Social Media Tag, You’re it!
    I do hope you have time for it, if not, it doesn’t matter! 🙂

    • Thank you, though I confess I have no idea what the Social Media Tag is… and time is what I have minus quantities of. Gardening and writing would be quite enough on their own, but being a publisher as well engulfs time… I’ve just been on your site to look. I ought to take up this kind opportunity to promote my book, but forgive me, I don’t think I can.

  7. This gives great insight into you as a reader (not to mention what you produce as a writer; Unseen Unsung — I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this — is a superb title that makes me envious!), which I think is an important distinction to make. I’ve had a little bit of a similar reaction to an uncomfortable, albeit “classic,” should-read book . I recognize the writer’s greatness, the skill of the prose, the plotting. Really the whole shebang, but I hate the protag and what he stands for. I feel little to no empathy for him. To be fair, I think I only read about 50 or so pages into the book. I have been saying I’d give it another chance this year, so perhaps it’s the right time. Great review; I don’t so much mind being discomfited by (or out-verbosed!) literature that I read (or write, for that matter), so perhaps this Tartt (interesting name!) novel might work for me, but I sincerely appreciate your caveats, Hilary.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you found this useful. Reading tastes vary so widely, that as a reader you can only suggest how something did or didn’t work for you. I’m glad the title Unseen Unsung appealed. I find title choice (and character names) very tricky and will change both up to the last minute, I also beg a lot of feedback from friends. Yes, I think from what I have read of your writing, that you might enjoy Tartt’s prose. I like a paragraph here or there of rich prose, but even a whole page is a bit like eating foie gras for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

  8. Love this review, Hilary. It’s refreshing and I love the split of the writer and the reader in you. More please. (I find myself that when a book becomes a must-read, because of recommendations or prizes, the pleasure of reading it often becomes inversely proportional to its length.)

    • Thank you. Over the fifteen years or so I have been writing, I have noticed great changes in myself as a reader. Although I sometimes feel sad at the loss of simple, uncritical enjoyment of a story, I also relish the more complex reactions I now feel. On the other hand, I hope most of the readers of my own stories are readers, rather than writers…

  9. I abandoned this book with great relief mystified by what is termed a masterpiece today. Then I was forced to endure a glowingly effusive session with my book club while I sat in the corner thinking “is it me?” Thankfully not. Great review.

    • Glad to be in your company, I’m not always in sync with my book group either. I think books like, say, paintings, only rarely have universal appeal and ‘good’ writing is still a matter fashion to some extent.

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