#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

At 771 pages, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is in many ways a magnum opus. It is also a massive treasure trove for writers. Let’s delve in and see what we discover.

This post contains spoilers.

The Goldfinch* by Donna Tartt

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives the blast that kills his mother. Because his father has disappeared, he is taken in by a friend’s family. Struggling with his grief and the changes that have occurred, the teenager clings to a small painting that reminds him of his mother. As he finds his way to adulthood over the next ten years, the artwork becomes both a comfort and a curse.

The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt a decade to write. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

Plot/Genre

As literary fiction, this novel checks all the boxes. It is more character driven than plot driven and devotes a great deal of time to the main character’s inner life, including  pages of discussions of Theo’s mental anguish. That said, the novel does have a well-developed — if sometimes meandering — plot to keep the reader engaged. Throughout, the mystery of the painting lies at the central backbone of the book.

As expected in this type of fiction, the writing is lush and polished. Every word feels like it has been carefully chosen and then coddled, until it has grown into a perfect sentence. The vocabulary is also superbly elevated. For example, the word “inwrought” in the first sentence isn’t in spellcheck. Tartt’s word choice allows the nerdiest of us to flaunt our lexicons.

Literary fiction is defined by its revelations about the human condition, and this novel has more than its share. In the last section, profound wisdom is unsheathed, with page after page of quote-worthy insights.

That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.

Donna Tartt’s musings about art are especially enthralling.

—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.

 

Character

None of the characters in this novel are simple. We learn on the very first page that the main character, Theo, is an unreliable narrator, yet we are drawn to him.  He wanders through life, propelled by his friend and sidekick, Boris, an alcoholic who boldly walks on the wild side, and yet tries to protect and take care of Theo like he’s a lost puppy.

Theo’s mentor and father-figure, Hobie, seems to be honest and upright, yet he remains loyal and loving regardless of how Theo tests him with dishonesty. Each character surprises us.

Setting

Donna Tartt’s descriptions are masterful and fully integrated. They never take the reader out of the story.

Theo grows up in New York City and spends most of his life there. The descriptions of New York are richly drawn and visceral, from the cold, damp weather to the odor inside a taxi.

Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as we sped by.

When Theo’s father takes him to Las Vegas, we sense the glare and heat. With strip malls arising out of blocks of stucco homes, the author captures a feeling of emptiness and disconnection.

The sky was wide and trackless…

Most of Theo’s time in Amsterdam is spent huddled in his hotel room, but he does encounter canals, bridges, cobblestones, and bicycles, giving us a flavor of the place.

Themes and Symbolism

As would be expected from a prominent work of literary fiction, the reader could spend a lifetime investigating the themes and symbols in this book. The main themes include the value of art, what defines a family, and what is love. The fact Theo was thrown into taking care of himself at an early age explores a theme of premature adulthood. Spirituality comes into play, too.

Discussion

According to an interview, Donna Tartt’s goal for writing a novel is to give her reader the opportunity to get lost in a book. If that is true, she has more than succeeded. To me, reading the first half was like gliding a knife through soft butter. It was so smooth that it was effortless. I looked up and a hundred pages had flown by.

As Theo’s mental stability wavers in the middle, however, so does the readability. I found the section in the hotel room in Amsterdam to be particularly difficult. By then, I was committed to find out what happened to him, so I plowed through to the end. It helped to realize the author’s jumbled writing reflected Theo’s delirium and mixed-up thoughts.

Part of why the story is so compelling is because Donna Tartt is a magician at setting up “little mysteries” through foreshadowing. For example, Theo goes to meet his fiancee Kitsey and she is “held up.” Her brother Platt awkwardly makes an explanation. Theo is confused, but doesn’t seem too concerned. The reader wonders what that was all about. A short time later all is revealed when we learn Kitsey is in love with, and secretly meeting, an old friend/enemy named Tom.

Of the Pulitzer Prize winners we have read so far, this one is the first that I truly enjoyed and the first where I didn’t have to figure out why it deserved the award. This is a truly magnificent novel.

 

Have you read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 68. Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young (2012) – Discussion begins January 22, 2018
Christian fiction

#BookBeginnings Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young

Today we should be starting the next novel in The Bestseller Code 100 challengeCross Roads by Wm. Paul Young for Book Beginnings on Fridays.  (We’re both still reading The Goldfinch).

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  Tony Spencer does whatever it takes to be a success. When he falls into a coma, he has an experience that allows him to re-evaluate his past behavior. Will he act on his revelations?

Cross Roads is considered to be Christian fiction. From the back, quote from Chapter 6:

Jesus reached over and took Tony’s hand. “On this journey, you can choose to physically heal one person, but only one, and when you make that selection, your journey will end.”

First Sentence:

Some years in Portland, Oregon, winter is a bully, spitting sleet and spewing snow in fits and starts as it violently wrestles days from spring, claiming some archaic right to remain king of the seasons — ultimately the vain attempt of another pretender.

Discussion:

I like the alliteration of splitting sleet and spewing snow. I was a bit confused about the last part.

It continues:

This year was not like that. Winter simply bowed out like a beaten woman, leaving head down in tattered garments of dirty whites and browns with barely a whimper or promise of return. The difference between her presence and absence was scarcely discernible.

The Bestseller Code Challenge is definitely introducing us to a wide diversity of books. This is so different from The Goldfinch. It will be interesting to compare the two novels to see how they both ended up on the same list.

#BookBeginnings The Curse of La Fontaine by M. L. Longworth

Today we’re reading a slow-paced mystery, The Curse of La Fontaine by M. L. Longworth for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

The Curse of La Fontaine by M. L. Longworth

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  Set in Aix-en-Provence, France, newlyweds Verlaque and Bonnet are drawn into investigating when a new restaurant in the neighborhood tries to expand and runs into a historical mystery.

First Sentence:

Antoine Verlaque liked die Corallini so much he almost regretted that his wedding was going to be so small.

Discussion:

M. L. Longworth continues on with a discussion of the history and architecture of the church.

I picked this up as an impulse at the library. It is part of a series. The French setting was what drew me to it, and it seems like that is going to be a big part of the book.

Have you ever picked up a book to transport yourself to another place?

Do you have a favorite book that immerses you in a novel setting?

The Funny Little Errors in The Goldfinch

I have been noting little errors and inconsistencies while reading The Goldfinch, and I thought I’d document them. This doesn’t mean I don’t like the book. I love the book. The quirky flaws make it even more precious to me.

By the way, this isn’t a full review. I haven’t even finished the book yet.

 

The first inconsistency is right on the first page. Main character Theo says he doesn’t know a word of Dutch, then a few sentences away he refers to the people as dames en heren, which is Dutch for ladies and gentlemen. This particular error is probably intentional and tells the alert reader that Theo is a bit of an unreliable narrator.

Later errors are probably not intentional. For example, in the hardcover version on pages 248-249 Theo and his friend Boris go shoplifting at a “discount supermarket” for “…steaks for us, butter, boxes of tea, cucumbers…” Shoplifting at a grocery or convenience store wasn’t an unreasonable scenario, and I didn’t think a thing of it until Donna Tartt reveals the store:  Costco. I burst out laughing. Costco is a mega warehouse store that only sells in bulk. The packages all contain multiple items. You wouldn’t steal a single steak, you’d have to hide an enormous pack of five steaks. Then you’d have to get them past the security check. Costco stations people at the door to look you over and read through your list ticking off your purchases. Let’s just say it isn’t likely Boris and Theo would shoplift at Costco if there were any alternatives, which there were.

My husband does woodworking, so I immediately noticed on page 418 that Hobie is using “cramps” to hold his wood together. British and Australian woodworkers use cramps. In America — and presumably New York City — we call them clamps.

The Bigger Picture

A lot of readers have noted that the drinking age isn’t eighteen as suggested in the book, but is in fact twenty-one. Maybe Tart was channeling her own inner teenager, which was from an earlier time?

Other reviewers have also pointed out errors in the technology used at various points. I’m a bit more forgiving about these because let’s face it, it took the author ten years to write the novel and technology changed so much during that period. With some 771 pages to keep track of, I would be more surprised if she had been able to stay consistent.

To me, all these little imperfections are rather like the scuff marks on a fine piece of antique furniture or the bubbles in a delicate pane of old glass. They give the novel a unique character.

That said, I’d like to let Donna Tartt know that if she needs a fact checker for her next novel, I’d be more than willing to volunteer.

Be Kind To Your Editor: Use The Requested Format

A few weeks ago I won a free 10-page edit from editor and writer September C. Fawkes.  She had offered the giveaway in honor of her 5th blog birthday.

I couldn’t wait to see what she had to offer. In my eagerness to submit the 10 pages, however, I committed a rookie mistake.

Editors often ask you to submit your manuscript in a particular format. In this case she asked for the manuscript in 12 point Courier font, double-spaced (you can see her instructions here).

I usually write in Scrivener, so my work is in 14 point Cochin font. When I transfer to Microsoft Word, my default font is 12 point Times New Roman. In my haste, I forgot to change it to Courier before I hit “send.” Like I said, a beginner-level error.

Why Format Matters

Why Courier? The most important reason is that it is a monospaced font, which means the letters are consistently aligned. Because an editor charges by the page, using a monospaced font helps make sure the page counts are uniform and everyone is charged the same rate.

In this case she was willing to convert the format and complete the edit. If I had submitted to a busy editor who was considering whether or not to publish my work, however, I might have ended up in the reject pile because of my lack of attention to detail.

Anyway, I appreciated the editing opportunity. If you need an editor, you might want to consider Fawkes Editing.  Just be sure your manuscript is in Courier 12 point, and is double-spaced!

#BestsellerCode100: Number 69. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

This post does not contain spoilers.

The Goldfinch* by Donna Tartt

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

The blurb: Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives the accident that kills his mother. Because his father left him, the family of a friend takes Theo in. Struggling with his grief and the changes that have occurred, the teenager clings to a small painting that reminds him of his mother. But there’s more to the painting than anyone suspects.

The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt a decade to write. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

 

Have you read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective
  4. Funny Little Errors in The Goldfinch

You can also join us on social media:

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.

Have you written about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt? Feel free to add a link to your review in the comments.
__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 68. Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young (2012) – Discussion begins January 22, 2018
Christian fiction

#BookBeginnings The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Today we’re starting the next book in The Bestseller Code 100 challenge, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

The Goldfinch* by Donna Tartt

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

The blurb:  Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives the accident that kills his mother. Because his father left him, the family of a friend takes Theo in. Struggling with his grief and the changes that have occurred, the teenager clings to a small painting that reminds him of his mother. But there’s more to the painting than anyone suspects.

The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt a decade to write. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

Public domain image from Wikimedia

First Sentence:

While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anyone or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises:  elevator, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom.

Discussion:

Apparently the narrator is an older Theo, not the teenager.

I included two sentences to give a feel of the complexity of the writing. No wonder the book is 771 pages long.

 Have you read The Goldfinch or any other of Donna Tartt’s novels? What do you think?

The goldfinch in the painting is the European goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis. Here’s a short video about the famous painting behind the novel’s  title:

 

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Although this book is considered to be Díaz’s debut novel, he published a collection of short stories a decade earlier.  Drown is considered by some to be semiautobiographical; in 10 short stories, Yunior (also our narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) relates the journey of his immigrant family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey.

This post does contain spoilers.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Culture and Language

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is steeped in the culture and history of the Dominican Republic, so much so that it includes dozens of footnotes to explain historical references, specifically to the era of its dictator Rafael Trujillo.  I’ve rarely read a novel that included footnotes and one would think these would be helpful. Unfortunately, the few I read were so long that I nearly forgot the storyline while reading the footnote.  Also, in the Kindle version, the footnote numbers were not very noticeable and I missed the bulk of them, not seeing them until the end of the book, at which time they were totally useless.

Díaz mingles English with Spanish, Spanglish, and slang continually throughout the book, with no attempts to translate for the reader.  If you come from a Latin American culture or know Spanish, this probably wasn’t an issue, but for me, it was a huge drawback.   I could glean very little from the context and my Kindle version didn’t translate or couldn’t find most of the words I asked for, so I finally gave up and just skimmed over those sections.  Yes, I could have Googled for translations, but the time that would have taken would have been astronomical.

Wondrous Descriptions

As Roberta noted in her Writer’s Review, Díaz created vibrant images.  He brought alive the people and locations of his novel.  Díaz described the Dominican tyrant Trujillo as the

portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery.

With a description like this, who needs a picture?

Unfortunately, vibrant word images were not enough to make me care about the characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, especially the main male characters, Oscar and Yunior (the narrator).  I felt that the story would have been stronger if the main character had been Oscar’s mother, Belicia.  In an extended flashback, we learn Belicia’s tragic history in the Dominican Republic, but her story essentially ends when she leaves her homeland in her mid-teens, immigrating to New Jersey.  How she overcame her heartbreak, the obstacles she faced in America, could have been more compelling than Oscar’s continual quest to get laid.  While I felt sorry for Oscar in many ways, I felt like a good dose of antidepressants and a personal trainer would have gone a long ways to improve Oscar’s life.  It was difficult to feel sympathy for a middle-class nerd from New Jersey after the flashback to Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, who ran afoul with Trujillo, was imprisoned and brutally tortured and, in the end, lost everything – home, family, fortune, businesses, and eventually his life.

Not My Cup Of Tea

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had been on my “want to read” list for quite some time, ever since a friend mentioned how much she loved it, so I was looking forward to reading it. My friend’s taste, though, tends to be a bit different than mine and this book is one glaring example.  While I loved the writing itself – in places it was lyrical and evocative – I didn’t care for the style, the mixture of Spanish and slang, and I didn’t care at all about the main character Oscar.

Several of the novels we’ve read during this challenge have led me to further explore other books by the same author.  In fact, I am currently reading two such books – Us by David Nicholls (One Day, book #92) and Rules of Prey by John Sandford (Easy Prey, book #86) – and I have The Bourne Legacy by Eric Van Lustbader (The Bourne Betrayal, book #71) on my nightstand to start next.  I’m sorry to say that I won’t be looking for any other Junot Díaz books to add to that list.

Have you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 69. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013) – Discussion begins January 9, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Time to discuss The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz from a writer’s perspective. This review is going to be a bit more free flowing than previous ones have been.

This post contains spoilers.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

The Positive

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, along with many other major awards. It is “Important Literature,” with a capital I.

Parts of the novel do deserve the “Important” label. For example, it deals with serious topics such as political corruption, the abuse of women, and culture of the Dominican Republic. The author delves deeply into Dominican history and uses realistic slang, which flavors the text perfectly. The setting is also well developed and enlightening.

 The writing often shines.  When he describes a neighbor, he says,

… a thirty-something postal employee who wore red on her lips and walked like she had a bell for an ass …

He has created a vibrant image with just a few words. Beginning writers could learn a lot from his descriptions.

Public domain photograph of Santo Domingo from Wikipedia

The Negative

On the other hand, Junot distances the reader from main character Oscar Wao through his use of a remote narrator. At first we don’t even know who the narrator is. The voice who tells us about Oscar’s life sounds like an old uncle reminiscing, and it doesn’t feel engaged or immediate. Later we learn the narrator is Yunior, Oscar’s sister’s boyfriend. He isn’t even a member of Oscar’s family.

The distance makes the story unfold like we’re watching the action through a camera lens run by someone with an unsteady hand. For a time the lens focuses tightly on Oscar, and the reader only gets glimpses of the real story in the background. When the lens widens a bit, the surroundings finally become clearer.

If you are taken with Oscar’s story, then this camera work is fine. But Oscar’s story is often not compelling. To me, the title of the book should have been The Nonexistent Sex Life of Oscar Wao. I would have been more engaged if the framing story spent time on something more substantial than whether or not Wao ever has intimate relations with a woman.

In fact, sex is a central thread throughout. Chapter three reveals that unlike Oscar, Oscar’s mother had a lot of sex, but with really bad consequences.

As Oscar’s sister Lola says,

One thing you can count on in Santo Domingo. Not the lights, not the law.
Sex.
That never goes away.

And sex is a really dangerous thing. That pretty much sums up the book.

The Bottom Line

Oscar Wao never made me think, “Wow.” Instead I thought, here’s an immensely talented writer working with some great material, but why didn’t he take it to a higher level?

 

Have you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

Join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 69. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013) – Discussion begins January 9, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014

#BookBeginnings Don Winslow’s The Force

The Force by Don Winslow is making a lot of best of the year lists, so let’s take a look at it for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

The Force by Don Winslow

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  Denny Malone is a renowned and decorated NYPD detective sergeant. A hero, he is considered to be part of the law enforcement elite. The only problem is that he has a dirty little secret. He and his partners have stolen some money and drugs during a raid. Will he get caught, and if he does, will he take down all the other dirty cops and politicians with him?

First Sentence:

The last guy on earth anyone ever expected to end up in the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Park Row was Denny Malone.

Discussion:

Don Winslow has worked as an investigator and anti-terrorist trainer, plus he’s written a number of bestsellers. So far this story has a gritty, authentic feel. In fact, I had to check to make sure it wasn’t nonfiction.

I’m only a few pages in, but it seems to be told from a omniscient point of view, which is unusual these days.

 

What do you think? Have you read anything by Don Winslow?

« Older posts

© 2018 It's A Mystery Blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑