But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the washes washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.
This is one of the numerous highlights I have saved in my kindle from Donna Tartt’s most recent book, The Goldfinch. For those of you that don’t know, The Goldfinch is the 2014 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a monolithic book – over 800 pages – and despite its award has received widely varied reviews from critics. Many believe it didn’t deserve the Pulitzer – some important literary critics have even gone as far to designate it as clichéd crap.
I myself was skeptical when I first began. The novel was a page-turner, but I wasn’t sure its content was Pulitzer worthy. After all, the prize is one of the most prestigious in the literary world. It was hard to conceive that a work about some stolen – fictional! – art could hold enough gravitas to win. Shouldn’t some deep-seated meaning behind the book be necessary? An elusive moral that quickly crystallizes as the pages pass? I couldn’t find anything. Even after I finished the book, I was left feeling puzzled and somewhat unfulfilled.
…That is not to say, however, that the book is not worthy of the prize. My initial dubious impression changed after perhaps the first quarter of the book. I am a sucker for words, and Tartt has a way with them. Some of her descriptions – particularly the scenes where the protagonist, Theo, and his best friend Boris are taking narcotics – are so unbelievably powerful that you can’t help but race through them. I greedily turned page after page, and found myself getting distracted thinking about the book in class, at the gym, and over coffee with friends. I came to find that a large part of The Goldfinch’s beauty is the sheer length of it. As it is, I feel as if the story could have continued for another couple hundred pages. I’m confident that to end the narration any earlier would have resulted in a premature finale.
Even weeks after I’ve put down the book, I still find myself coming back to Tartt’s tale. Perhaps part of the reason that critics and casual readers such as myself are having such a hard time classifying it, is because of the cognitively dissonant reaction that it evokes. Our rational minds tell us that a fictional work about the dilemmas of stolen art (to drastically oversimplify) is not worthy of any emotional reaction. It is, without considering all the subtle nuances, a feat on par with Harry Potter. However. The emotional reaction that I and clearly thousands of other readers felt just doesn’t jive! Tartt plays with our hearts, draws us in and spits us out, and forces us to identify with characters and situations that we otherwise have nothing in common with. The description of this book sounds anything but compelling, but to read it is to experience – as the chief New York Times book reviewer puts it – a “rapturous, symphonic” story.
No, I didn’t feel satisfied or pacified or mollified by the end of it! But why? To be sure, it was not because Tartt left loose ends or a cliffhanger demanding a sequel. Some books simply aren’t there to make you feel comfortable. This is the beauty of The Goldfinch: it’s a novel on a seemingly innocuous subject that will nevertheless keep you up at night, and feeling unsettled for weeks after you’ve put it down. So – was it worthy of the Pulitzer? I’m coming down firmly on the side of yes. And to those considering reading it – don’t be deterred by its length! If you’re anything like me, I promise you won’t notice the time passing.