Carel Fabritus, who painted Goldfinch, the painting at the heart of Tartt's novel.

Literary great or heap of mother love?

goldfinchIt’s not often that you come across a new word, or one that is a splendid as bildundsroman. Apparently it is used in literary criticism to describe a coming-of-age story like Harry Potter’s adventures or Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Bildundsroman fits perfectly what The Goldfinch is – the story of how Theo Decker staggers into adulthood while trying to hurdle the wreckage of relationships with his mum, dad, grandparents, friends and lovers.

It is a great book. At more than 800 pages long I wouldn’t have persevered if I wasn’t gripped by the central character. There are some fantastic sections, most notably his drug-fuelled antics in the surreal environment of an abandoned housing estate on the edge of Las Vegas. His pal Boris, a hard-drinking Ukrainian, is a marvellous invention, who when the book eventually gets turned into a film should see young actors fighting to the death for the chance to portray him.

Yet I can’t help but come away from The Goldfinch with unease about why I didn’t enjoy it more. Primarily my anxiety is caused by the first-person narration of the book in which Theo’s description of his feelings and those of people around him feels too sophisticated and nuanced for somebody who is, it emerges, so damaged. Even if you accept that he recounts his exploits as a teenager through the eyes of a mature adult I find some of the description unbelievable.

When you then set it up against other bildundsromans of note I feel its weaknesses come through. Had it been written in the third person the events could have unfolded and the reader could have had the challenge of filling in the emotional gaps, but in The Goldfinch the way we are directed to feel about characters is blasted at the reader as if from an elephant gun.

I couldn’t help contrasting it with Great Expectations and the more I read the less favourable that match up was. The Goldfinch has the solid, open-hearted Hobie as Dickens crafted Joe Gargery. Tartt creates the character of Pippa as an elusive love interest much like Estella. Even Mrs Barbour, who kindly takes in Theo at a time of crisis, develops into The Goldfinch’s own Miss Havisham. Theo’s wavering fortunes are also reminiscent of Pips. Because the characters have been done before they don’t have the impact and ultimately they will not stand the test of time like Dickens’ greats.

A final issue with the book is the way it milks the line of parental loss, in that Theo loses his mother to an explosion in an art gallery in the book’s first few pages. From then on a constant theme running through the narrative is the forlorn puppy nature of Theo which is harked back to again and again – is it a ‘mother-love’ fix for the avalanche of middle-aged mothers who’ll no doubt be reading it? It jars so much that by the end of the book I wasn’t sure if I was rooting for Theo or wished a canal, a brick and a bag had been involved much sooner.

Carel Fabritus, who painted Goldfinch, the painting at the heart of Tartt's novel.

Carel Fabritus, who painted Goldfinch, the painting at the heart of Tartt’s novel.

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