Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time.
– Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
If Donna Tartt and I were in a relationship on Facebook, it would be, “It’s Complicated.” Reading her novels leaves me awed and frustrated, annoyed and enlightened. The Secret History did it to me when I read it for the first time earlier this year and The Goldfinch just did it to me on an even larger scale.
I am in awe of Tartt’s ability to craft a sentence, to use a metaphor in a way that feels so original and so true that it makes me want to scream for not thinking of it first. Try this:
“Mrs. Barbour was from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty — a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her whenever she came into a room.”
It’s infuriatingly good. It’s evocative and powerful and specific. Reading Donna Tartt is, to use one of her favorite phrases, like self-immolation because every third sentence makes me want to scream and quit writing forever because it’s just never going to be this good. However, there are also quirks of Tartt’s writing that I can’t stand: the misused semicolons, infinite em dashes, and sensational sentence fragments that become more frequent and less impactful as the novel goes on. At times I wonder if her work would have benefitted from a harsher editor, as many of her idiosyncrasies are great in small doses but become jarring 500 pages in.
Mechanics aside, there’s no doubt that Tartt is a compelling storyteller. Though slow at times, The Goldfinch gives you time to get to know its characters before running full-throttle through the climax and conclusion. One thing I admired in The Secret History that was extraordinarily well done here as well is Tartt’s attention to detail and strict adherence to the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. In both novels, there were moments of revelation that were made all the more shocking by the fact that clues had been scattered in plain sight throughout the book. She doesn’t waste narrative space — if something is mentioned, it’s for a reason, always.
I found Theo insufferable at times but was satisfied by his development. That said, Boris and Hobie are two of my favorite characters I’ve ever read — the times I liked Theo best was when he was with either of them. What I’ve found most frustrating in both TSH and The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt’s treatment of her female characters. I found this quote from Tartt:
“I do find friendship more compelling to write about than romantic love. I am not interested in marriage and maternity novels. For me, the quest is to write something with a rip-roaring effect; I get that from stories that combine friendship and adventure.”
This statement is fair enough: not every story should be about romantic love. However, both novels feature romantic love, and both times it is a disservice to her female characters. Camilla from TSH and Pippa from The Goldfinch are both idealized by male main characters, put on impossible pedestals and revered as angels without ever receiving an actual personality other than the traits projected on them by the main character. They don’t have relationships with other females, they don’t have aspirations, they don’t do much of anything but exist as a backdrop to a male story.
Because of this, the above quote (“I am not interested in marriage and maternity novels”) reeks of condescension. It feels as though Tartt believes friendship and adventure belong to men — women’s stories do not have the “rip-roaring effect” she’s going for. The way she writes about women in both comes across as positively disdainful, and I can’t help but start to feel like Tartt is playing the outdated game of trying to beat men at their own game by disparaging other women. I don’t think that every book needs to be a feminist manifesto, but I do believe that characters, both male and female, deserve to be fully developed. It’s disheartening when female characters are reduced to stereotypes, especially by a female writer who has achieved considerable critical and financial success.
Taking all of this into account, I still can’t deny that I loved The Goldfinch, just as I loved The Secret History. The Goldfinch has remarkable things to say about art and beauty and the impermanence of human life. It’s simultaneously nihilistic and hopeful. It is, as so many people declared, a masterpiece in its own right.
“And that’s what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velasquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick — but, step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes.”