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Dissecting The Goldfinch

an image of an open book with a fountain pen balanced on top
Photo [1] by Max Pixel, CC0 [2]

While it might be more apt to describe Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch as anchored by time, place and character, rather than constricted as the word “tether” implies, I couldn’t resist a reference to the enigmatic painting at the center of this epic tale that recently swept the literary world. Not only did The Goldfinch win the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, it won readers over as well, enough to entice the WU Breakout Novel Book Dissection group to take on the novel as our second read of 2017.

As some may recall from Natalie Hart’s initial post of this series (Dissecting A Man Called Ove) [3]in January, the dissection group takes questions from Donald Maass’s  Writing the Breakout Novel and applies them to works that rise above the crowd of today’s competitive book market, in hopes of gleaning insights on our own writing. And while Donna Tartt, unlike previous authors we have explored, arrived with an established reputation, the tremendous acclaim for this work after the author’s extended absence from publishing, warranted an exception. What we discovered was a book that, while not flawless, excelled at capturing a tumultuous period of recent history, weaving multi-dimensional characters into a tale filled with intrigue, tension and an ever-present nostalgia for what might have been.

“How did the author do it?” is the question repeatedly asked, in a number of ways, of all of our breakthrough reads. In this instance, the answers frequently centered around three key elements:

Fair warning that *spoilers* may lurk ahead in the following samplings from our group discussions on these attributes of this acclaimed bestseller.

[4]An Opening that Breaks the Rules (yet sticks the landing)

“While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” From this cryptic opening line, to the revelation a few pages later that the protagonist’s mother would die near the beginning of the tale, to the sprinklings of backstory throughout the early narrative, one would think all possible tension would be sapped from the story. In fact, Elissa Field mentioned she set the book aside on an earlier attempt for just that reason.

And yet, in the larger context, the group found the opening perfect, with the early knowledge helpful not only in building suspense but also in establishing kinship with Theo, a sometimes unlikeable protagonist. As Liz Tully explained, she was intrigued at finding out the cause of his mother’s death. In her words,

I was delighted by the description of her in the restaurant. ‘. . . and how she grasped my sleeve at the sudden, almost painful loveliness of a birthday cake with lit candles, being carried in procession from the kitchen, faint circle of light wavering in across the dark ceiling . . . I thought about it again and again after her death and indeed I’ll probably think about it all of my life.‘ After that paragraph, I had to find out what happened to her.”

And what a source of tension that search provided, with Tartt masterfully teasing out the opening drama, in which every action and decision of Theo and his doomed mother brings them closer to an unavoidable fate, perfectly illustrated by a line Jocosa Wade cited —

And there was something festive and happy about the two of us, hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrellas, quick, quick, quick, for all the world as if we were escaping something terrible instead of running right into it.”

Suffice to say that by the time the alluded tragedy strikes, in unflinching detail, starting the cascade of dominoes that comprise the remainder of the story, most participants felt committed to the literary experience set before them.

Frozen Moments and a Universal Longing

That is not to say the journey was easy. Nearly every participant agreed some sections of the novel were a challenge, with the words “overwritten” and “predictable” and “repetitive” cropping up in several discussion threads. But there was also clear agreement on something Tartt did well, which was to evoke the great societal upheavals of our time, from the era of violent terrorism depicted in a fictional New York attack to the collapse of the housing market as depicted in an equally tacky and haunting Vegas suburb, whose promise withered early on the vine.

Seen through the eyes of Theo, these disruptions inspired by real world events reflect his increasing internal turmoil. As Alisha Rohde explained when expanding upon the idea of how frozen moments, or snapshots, deepened the story —

It reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being,’ which are also these passages full of meaning, layers, and yet when you read them it’s as if almost nothing is happening…on the surface. Usually for Woolf all the ‘action’ is inside a character’s perception or the reader’s perception, or both.”

For a novel without a clear antagonist – something seen in several of our reads – developing these inner conflicts is critical. And Tartt far exceeded the bar in that regard. As Jocosa summarized on a separate thread,

Theo’s journey seems to be about maneuvering through one moment of chaos after another until he can sort through the inner chaos of his own feelings about himself, the loss of his mother, the abandonment of his father and how he can feel worthy of the generosity of love offered from Hobie, Pippa and even Mrs. Barbour and Boris.”

Compelling Characters in a Searing Crucible

This statement hits upon another clear success of The Goldfinch. For even while plumbing the depths of Theo’s internal struggle, our discussions revealed a contrast as well. External chaos thrives in Tartt’s fictional world, and none of her characters are safe. Beyond Theo’s own painful path, supporting characters nurse their own injuries, both physical and emotional. More than one character experiences abandonment, loss, even violence. And over time the author invites you into each of their separate lives. As Jan O’Hara put it,

This is one mega-strength of the book for me, and is owed in part to its ambitious timeline and the sheer immensity of characterization. We get to see people as they mature and change, and as they are thrust into crisis themselves.”

Crises that ratchet up with every page, particularly as the tale draws to its climax. Becky Brandon gushed at Tartt’s unflinching willingness to “make things worse and keep upping-the-ante,” which Alisha pointed out underlined a central theme of both the novel and its namesake painting —

Very early in the book, there was a bit about the bird in the painting being chained to its perch. After the part where Theo’s dad appeared, I started watching for the moments when Theo, too, is jerked back to his perch. It happens almost every time he starts to ‘fly’ a little.”

And yet it turned out that a passing comment from an early discussion thread, describing the opening narrative as one of “every step closer to danger,” in some ways epitomized the whole of the novel as well. Such skill at managing multiple levels of tension explains how millions around the globe fell in love with this epic novel, sending it far from its own early perch to soaring heights in both sales and acclaim.

Those were our key take-aways. But what are your thoughts? If you read The Goldfinch, what elements did you find inspiring – or frustrating? And if you didn’t read it, can some of these observations be incorporated into your own works in progress? What other authors incorporate attributes in a similar fashion? Please share your thoughts below, and see if we can gain further insights together.

And if you’d like to join the group for our dissection of The Martian, by Andy Weir, starting July 20, please join us on Facebook [5]. We would love to welcome you aboard!

About John J Kelley [6]

John J Kelley [7] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [8], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.