784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

31 thoughts on “784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

  1. Guy Savage says:

    When I saw the first few lines, I actually expected the review to be on the negative side. I’ve heard mixed things about this book from various sources. It’s a book that got a lot of press, but I’m not convinced I’d want to read it. After all those pages, though, I’m glad that your experience was mostly positive.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I was one of the people who thought The Secret History needed some thorough editing, so this one has not tempted me so far. I love her writing, but find that a little of it goes a long way.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      The thing is that editing her books by say up to a third, would change them so much, it wouldn’t seem like her voice any more – when you listen to her in interviews, she takes a lot of time to answer, considers her words and repeats herself with different words – she sounds a lot like she writes. I don’t think she could create less words!

  3. drharrietd says:

    Well you know I’m a huge fan so I’m relieved you liked it. Personally I wouldn’t cut a word but I so agree about Hogie and Boris. Great characters. I think gray is how Americans spell grey!

  4. heavenali says:

    I loved The Goldfinch overall but ot was a four or four point five read rather than a five star read for me because of some of that longwindedness. The middle section is overlong in my opinion. I loved her descriptive writing too and the sense of place in New York particularly is brilliant. Glad you enjoyed it. Do read The Luminaries and Wolf Hall though they are fabulous.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I *loved* The Secret History (though I do agree about the need for a little editing) but didn’t like the follow up at all – which has made me a little wary about this one, because to commit a lot of time to such a long book which might be a waste is a difficult choice. But the fact that you think it worth the time makes me much more confident!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I didn’t read The Little Friend, but The Goldfinch was definitely worth it. It does grab you, even if it is a bit long-winded. I read most of it in big chunks over three weekends which was a good way to tackle it. It’s conveniently divided into suitable sections for this. I do plan to re-read The Secret History though one of these days as it was twenty years ago when I read it.

  6. litlove says:

    I would very much like to read this, but I’m not a fan of long-windedness and I fear it must be coming in a book of almost 800 pages. I have this sort of inner conviction that no book needs to be longer than 500 pages, but then lots of readers love the feeling of existing in a different world and so it’s a pleasure to them to have a big book to wallow in. But Mr Litlove read it and enjoyed it (though he thought it overlong) and I really do want to see what all the fuss is about! It’s a VERY brave choice for a bookclub though – I’d never manage to persuade mine to read such a chunkster! 🙂

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I almost felt it was like watching an arthouse movie reading this book – everything is so beautifully described. As I said, you really are reading her vision, and can’t put so much of your own imagination into the movie in your head because everything is there already on the page. It was a good story though… We had an extra week for bookgroup this time – so it was doable for me.

  7. sakura says:

    I’m impressed too that this was a book group choice – well done! I loved this book for the richness of Tartt’s writing and really enjoyed reading it. But then, I really loved The Secret History (and still do). But I do agree that The Goldfinch did feel long in some parts. I read this when it first came out but still haven’t managed to write my review!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      One of our group had been asking for us all to read it for months and months – so we gave in. Glad we did.

  8. Christine A says:

    Our book club was only discussing whether we should do this on Tues night and I wasn’t so keen having got about a quarter way through and given up. However, your review has given me new insight so I might just support this choice.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Christine – you’ve obviously hit the flat middle bit! It does get a lot more fun and interesting again and almost bonkers towards the end when she almost lets the plot take over!

  9. Alex says:

    We were discussing it last night at book group too! As a group our reaction was pretty much the same as yours. No one hated it but myself and one other thought the Las Vegas section particularly could have lost a sizeable chunk without anything important being lost. We also loved Hobie, although some of us were less enthusiastic about Boris. What we did agree on though was that both of them are truly Dickensian characters and that her admiration for Dickens sings out on every page.

  10. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Boris is just a marvel of a character. I would read this overlong book a dozen times just for Boris.

    Did you really think The Secret History was too long? That, to me, remains one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. It doesn’t feel like a single word too many; just suspense that keeps piling up to the inevitable climax.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      My abiding memory of reading The Secret History is that it was long (but I never said I didn’t enjoy it!) But that was 20 years ago – shows it definitely needs a re-read.

  11. Denise says:

    Someone at work is reading this and loving it, say they don’t notice the length at all. I am feeling so jealous… so many books I want to read and so little time!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      At the risk of damning with faint praise, The Goldfinch is eminently readable – so once you’re in the pages fly past – you don’t notice while you’re reading -but there are a lot of them!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Hi Antonio, it definitely needs a little courage to start a chunky novel that has been hyped and garlanded – (cf Wolf Hall and The Luminaries still on my shelf!) – There’s nothing to fear with The Goldfinch though…

  12. winstonsdad says:

    I’ve it lying on my kindle for a break or chance when I’ve time to read it over a few days , I loved her first book and this one does seems return to form

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      It’s definitely best read in big chunks when you have time (IMHO). I hope you enjoy it Stu.

  13. CarolS says:

    I’ve read it, loved it, definitely loved Hobie and Boris, it is a fast read so the length doesn’t matter at all. The book group I belong to is reading it for December with a short story in between (Annie Proulx) to give everyone more time, though I don’t think they’ll need the extra weeks once they get going. My only problem is retrieving the novel from the friend I’ve loaned it to (she loved it, passed it to her daughter, ditto reaction, then onto a niece!). My husband needs it.
    I agree with with the Dickensian echoes spotted above.
    I’ve never managed to read The Secret History, something about it annoys me every single time I pick it up. Do I need more staying power??

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