While The Goldfinch possesses moments of unmitigated joy and transcendence, it is ultimately lacking in one key facet: I cannot say I know precisely what Tartt wants me to understand after reading this book. Sure, The Goldfinch is a sprawling rollick of a novel, but it must be more than that, right? In the serialized, episodic tradition most readily associated with Dickens (to Western readers that is), Tartt delivers something broad, vast, and fantastical. Yet unlike Dickens, too much of The Goldfinch feels simply unnecessary and therefore contrived.
Many critics have quibbled with Tartt’s prose, suggesting that The Goldfinch reads like a bloated young adult novel. While I cannot disagree with these criticisms, I suppose that was her not-too-bashful intent. The book’s narrator, the hopelessly self-destructive Theo Decker, has some laudable education credentials (New York prep schools for example), yet he does not possess an unambiguously literary voice in the fashion of Nick Carraway (nor is he, by my estimation, meant to). Like his mother, Theo’s aesthetic sensibilities and voice are filtered through a visual prism, which perhaps explains the meandering, economic, and at times, trite prose. For a point of comparison simply read Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. There Tartt’s sparse prose is visible, but so is a transparent literariness that established her as a unique voice over 30 years ago. Critics that dismiss The Goldfinch for this reason fail to recognize the commitment Tartt makes to narrative coherency and verisimilitude. More often than not reading Theo is exhausting; as it should be. To her credit, Tartt presents a pedestrian voice that speaks to and represents our fraught contemporary moment, freshly peppered with emoticons, clichés, and overburdened sentimentality. For this reason I might be inclined with a wrinkle of hesitation to recommend The Goldfinch.