The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (and also The Secret History because I read them together)

goldfinch

My book club generally picks a few books ahead so that we can all get the book early. Two of our members, unbeknownst to each other, chose back-to-back Donna Tartt books for November and December. I had never read any of her books, and had heard completely opposing opinions of her work from coworkers whose taste I normally trust. How could she be the best author coworker H ever read while simultaneously being “not finishable” to coworker E? Well, after reading The Secret History for November’s meeting and The Goldfinch for December’s, I have a theory: H must have read Goldfinch while E read The Secret History.

The Secret History is basically Evan Hunter’s Come Winter updated for a new generation (sister Julia, are you reading this? You might like it). It’s full of completely unlikeable, unredeemable characters doing awful, thoughtless, painful things to other people and then taking no responsibility and feeling no remorse for those actions. It’s not just the protagonist – his friends, his parents, and his teacher are all pretty much a waste of DNA. I kept waiting for someone to actually learn something from their colossal mistakes, but (spoiler alert) no one ever did and they kept piling bad decisions on top of one another. Skip this one, seriously, unless you like books about self-involved assholes that make you sorry you’re a fellow human. (It’s like the literary equivalent of watching Pulp Fiction, just replace the gratuitous bible quotes with Greek literature.)

The Goldfinch, on the other hand, I loved. The protagonist is just as flawed a person as the characters from Secret History, but I sympathized with him because unlike the overprivileged, snobbish characters in Secret History, Theo has horrible life experiences to overcome, so I cut him a lot of slack. (Also, his crimes don’t seem so heinous. I could see myself committing a few of them if I was a motherless shell-shocked teen. Richard and his friends’ crimes in Secret History? No excuses, they shouldn’t have done any of them. Ever.) Warning: The beginning of the novel takes forever. It says right on the book jacket that his mother dies. He tells you himself on the first page that she dies. And then it takes like 40 billion chapters for her to actually die so we can get on with the remaining events of the story. Once his mother is safely disposed of, the story picks up. We watch 13-year-old Theo as he stumbles through life with no idea what to do next, or how to do it. A childhood friend’s family takes him in temporarily, and he tries his best to fit in with them, but it doesn’t last. Neither does his stint living with his deadbeat dad in Las Vegas. It is only when Theo takes his life into his own hands, seeking out a family of his own choosing, that things start looking up for him. The problem? Theo has been essentially allowed to raise himself, and no matter how old he gets, he still keeps making decisions a 13 year old boy would make, and they keep working out about as well as you’d expect.

It all comes to a head once Theo is in his 20s, when every bad decision he’s ever made gathers to smack him in the face at once. Watching the chips fall is highly entertaining – can it get worse? Yes! It can! But wait, it’s getting EVEN WORSE!  I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story. I’ll just throw out a few reasons you might want to read it: Art theft, antiques fraud, the Russian Mafia, rampant drug use, infidelity, mental illness, denial, unrequited love…it’s all in there. And the glorious descriptions of Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch – the painting at the story’s center – made me want to steal it myself.

So – if you like long, rambling stories that teeter just on the brink of disaster, and you often find yourself sticking with a novel just to see what horrible thing will happen next, you might like The Goldfinch. To be fair, you might also like The Secret History – it has the same “oh shit they’re going to …” vibe, but the things that happen are far more horrible and the people far less redeemable than Theo and his collected “family”.

As a side note, I wonder seriously about Donna Tartt’s drug use. They say that writers should write what they know, but if Tartt uses even a tenth of the drugs and alcohol her characters do, how the hell does she have enough brains left to string together coherent sentences? I know I am a fairly conservative person when it comes to substance abuse (well, except for grad school, but really, what else was there to do in Kansas City for 3 years?), but holy cow, how many drugs can a person wash down with how much alcohol before they just fall down and DIE?

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