Does Size Matter?

Coming in at almost 800 pages, Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, is for the most serious of readers. It takes commitment and most of your free time for maybe a month—depending on how fast you read. Is it worth it? Snotty Literati breaks down this literary behemoth, spoilers and all, to give you the answer. (Yes, we are revealing the novel’s end. Stop now, or don’t.) 

donna-tartt-the-goldfinch-book-coverLara: Can I just start by saying I think it’s fitting that we are meeting to discuss Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on a rainy day? One where the sun fights to break through the clouds and is reasonably successful, but only after we’ve had buckets of downpour?

Jennifer: It is fitting, because Dear Donna is cloudy, penetrating, and refreshing though damaging. Just made that crap up right there, thank you very much.

Lara: Okay, so let me give a brief summary of the book, and we can dig into what really matters—our opinions of it. Cool?

Jennifer: Cool. And let me just say that you pushed this book on me, much like a drug pusher. I didn’t want to read this because it was so big. And you made me.

Lara: I did and let’s have the record reflect Lara 1, Jennifer 0. Because of that damn whale. I will never let you forget that. Ever. Not Never Ever.

But let’s get back to discussing The Goldfinch. So, it’s post-9/11, and 13-year-old Theo Decker is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. They are in different parts of the museum when there is an explosion. As Theo makes his way through the rubble to find her, he is stopped by a an older dying man to protect a painting that is hanging near them. “The Goldfinch” (an actual real-life painting by Carel Fabritius, 1622-1654) and Theo make it out of the museum alive. His mother does not. Theo is an orphan, with a few minor possessions to his name, namely a famous work of art that will change the trajectory of his life.


The actual painting: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Source: Google Images

Jennifer:  Basically, even though Theo didn’t intend to steal a masterpiece, the rest of his life—in this novel—is affected by his possession of stolen artwork. He ends up living in Vegas with his scary, shady dad and his scary, shady dad’s scary, shady girlfriend, named Xandra. In Vegas, Theo meets the real heart-and-soul of this novel, Boris, a Ukrainian teenager who initiates Theo into serious drug-use. We end up back in New York, with the painting, and Theo living in the Village with the dead old man’s kindly roommate and business partner, Hobie. Boris shows up again when Theo’s in his twenties. They do some damage. The painting is involved. We’ll tell you more soon.  Some things you need to know: there are a lot of drugs in this novel, and the novel is huge.  Stephen King kept saying stuff about how it’s Dickensian. That’s gotta be enough plot summary. Lara, where do you want to take it from here?

Lara: I am going to start with Tartt’s writing. It’s beautiful.

“When I was a boy, after my mother died, I always tried hard to hold her in my mind as I was falling asleep so maybe I would dream of her, only I never did. Or, rather, I dreamed of her constantly, only as an absence, not as a presence: a breeze blowing through a just-vacated house, her handwriting on a notepad, the smell of her perfume… a shadow moving away against a sun-struck wall. Sometimes I spotted her in a crowd, or in a taxicab pulling away, and these glimpses of her I treasured despite the fact that I was never able to catch up with her.”

She has a gift with words and I think I would likely read most anything by her.

Jennifer: Good place to start. Yes, I think this is an important point, maybe the important point: Tartt is worth reading for the language alone. One might dislike the characters. One might find the end disappointing. One might think the length absurd. But Tartt, in my opinion, is worth it because of her phenomenal language. The book moves from one gem to another. These are just some snippets, removed from their context, which I couldn’t help but highlight:

“an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom”

“tigerish air”

On Boris, our Ukranian antagonist: “a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent”

On Vegas: “This whole town is like a big Fuck You to Thoreau.”

“this grainy Nosferatu world”

“in his tweed gamekeeper’s jacket, with his big sagged out pockets for dead birds and shotgun shells”

“colors ranging from corpse mold to bruise magenta”

“unbearable claustrophobia of the soul”

“cello-brown walls”

I guess I’m willing to say this book rocks, no matter what problems it has. The length may be a problem. I was fully absorbed, Dickensian indeed. Novels, these days, seem to be shortish—maybe around two-hundred-fifty pages on average. This abbreviated narrative might mirror our contemporary attention span. Part of me wondered, however, if Tartt is the one doing it right, if more novels should be like this. The crazy length allowed for the reader to be present in the moment, to absorb the finer shades of meaning, to get to know these characters. The short novel may not allow for such depth. Maybe the modern reader is intolerant of such attention, but Tartt is demanding our full attention—as she should. What if more novels were written like this?

Lara: I don’t think the average person will make the time to read books of this length even when they are this good. Because even though The Goldfinch is really good, it could be 200 pages shorter. And at that, it would be approaching 600 pages – still a behemoth.

I actually liked most of the characters. Hobie, Theo’s guardian, was my favorite, with Boris a close second. Boris was colorful and larger than life, and he was the reason Theo started taking drugs and is ultimately an addict. Boris means well and genuinely loves Theo. But their relationship is destructive and both men drove me up the wall at times.


I about died when we learned that Theo had not actually been carting The Goldfinch around for 20 years because Boris had stolen it and was using it in some bizarre art-stealing-money charade and now needed Theo’s help to retrieve it. That was a jaw-dropping moment for me.

Jennifer: Okay, yes, now we’re talking. Hobie is the only good man in this book. And I liked the dog, Popper (or “Popchik,” as Boris calls him), though I felt a crazy amount of anxiety surrounding that dog who relied on a bunch of drug addicts to take care of him. I kept worrying about that freakin’ dog. Like really worrying. I actually stopped and talked to my husband about Popchik.

But Boris. Boris is the most dynamic, magnetic, thrilling character in this book. You say that he means well and genuinely loves Theo. Lara, I don’t think so. Boris may mean well, but love is another story. That betrayal was—you do not exaggerate—jaw-dropping. And I felt the world crumble for Theo in that moment. Like other readers, I didn’t love Theo—but, in that betrayal by Boris, I felt the intensity of his loss. This book is about things I really can’t articulate well. On the surface, it’s about a boy who loses his mother, steals a painting, and does a lot of drugs. But there is more to it than that. This is a book in which there is no meaning to be found, no goodness apart from the flickering shades of paint on a canvas that may attest to beauty across the ages. This is a dark, hopeless novel, if you ask me. I loved it for it’s language, but it is intensely bleak.


Do not forget that, despite the redemption of the painting, and the weird—albeit suddenly abrupt—affirmative ending, Theo is a murderer.

And more on Boris. You know, I’ll be honest, I’ve known some people who possess this charisma, this magic. Boris is magical. From the beginning. Boris is a drug. But Boris steals from Theo, first, and then leads him straight into murder—excusing his own behavior the whole time. And it’s not like Boris is dumb.

There are people in this world who make us feel intensely alive. Theo feels this with Boris. But Boris will leave Theo feeling intensely dead too. Boris is a dangerous man.

Lara: You had to bring that up, the murder part. But you are right. Boris is a drug and their relationship takes on the highest of highs and hits rock bottom—a number of times. Near the end of it all, Theo comes to this realization:

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Do you agree with this? I think it sounds like a victim’s view or, more specifically, an addict’s view and answer for their behavior.


Jennifer: Hmm. I think you are right. I don’t agree with Theo’s conclusion. I think there’s a lot to be said for the spiraling of events. The idea of patterns mentioned in the book. One detail, one tiny little interaction or movement, one choice: our lives shift and spiral. The Goldfinch reveals how people are affected by their worlds. But I guess I don’t think we’re so powerless. We are put into our worlds. We may not always choose our surroundings, our circumstances. But then we respond, and those responses are choices. We choose how to live in our worlds. Hobie ran an ethical business. Theo did not.

I guess that begs other questions. Drugs. Could Theo just stop? Was that a choice too?

Lara: I think Theo could stop the way anyone with an addiction stops—with help, constant self-regulation and the risk of relapsing. I am of the belief that when you are an addict, you are always an addict.

Jennifer: Frankly, I can’t even talk about it without getting all nutty on you. That’s the focus of my next book, and I know addiction is maddening and all-encompassing. I’ve heard some criticism about its depiction in this book—some suggestion that the characters are too high-functioning for such drug use. What do you think?

Lara: I don’t have experience with drugs or people in my life who use, but I do believe that people can be extremely high-functioning addicts. You have soccer moms addicted to prescription pain pills who are able to sit on the PTA, drive their kids to school and sports without incident. There are executives responsible for huge companies doing cocaine. It may catch up with them at some point, but years can pass without detection. And before all the soccer moms and executives write in to say I have unfairly described them, I am clearly not talking about all soccer moms and executives; I needed to use an example of people who should be functioning (although… shouldn’t we all?); and c’mon, how many soccer moms and executives are even reading this column?

Jennifer: I can’t believe you have no experience with drugs or addicts. I’d say at least 50% of the people in my life have spent time in rehab. They’re going to kill me now.

Anyway. I thought Tartt did just fine. The thing she showed was its pervasiveness. I thought she told it like it is.

One thing I do want to mention is how Xandra (the druggie girlfriend of Theo’s dad), who seems like this Vegas floozy, ultimately speaks prophetically. She tells Theo that he’s more like his loser father than he wants to admit, and that Boris is bad news. I think this book is heavy and metaphysical. We are both enslaved by our time, and makers of our fate?

Here are some issues I’m not touching upon, or we’re sorta touching upon:

  • the commentary on Art offered in this book
  • the ending: Are you good with it? WE NEVER FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO BORIS!
  • the brilliant depiction of place: New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam
  • drugs
  • mostly unlikeable characters
  • the value of human life vs. a painting (the murder!)
  • the loss of meaning in postmodernity
  • length vs. language
  • the idea of the victim
  • what constitutes a family

Yeah, I’m thinking aloud with that list. I think you said it best. We may not agree with a lot in here, but it provoked discussion. That, right there, is something. I think we could tackle any of the above and give you full-fledged responses. I’m going to whole-heartedly recommend it, but I’m also going to assert it offers a dark, unlivable philosophy. So keep your nose clean.

Lara: Always keep your nose clean. Read The Goldfinch, there’s a lot more story than we could cover. And keep reading our columns.

Next month, Snotty Literati tackles lighter fare with B.J. Novak’s insta-bestseller One More Thing. Don’t know B.J.? He’s Ryan from The Office and he also wrote for the show. He also used to date “It Girl” Mindy Kaling. He’s kind of a big deal and that’s why we are checking out his first foray into publishing. 


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