After reading any number of enthusiastic reviews of this book, I decided that I would first give The Secret History a try. I thought it was decent story about, to borrow Tartt’s line from her most recent book, “privilege gone to seed.” But it didn’t convince me to buy The Goldfinchin hardback; only friends and former colleagues could do that.
Now that I’ve finished it, I will offer this. If it is not the worst book I’ve ever read, it’s definitely the most overrated.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that our protagonist, Theo, survives an explosion in a New York museum and walks out with a painting. Here is where the implausible pieces begin (and they never end). Perhaps because I already knew about the explosion, I accepted that , but I found it hard to believe anything after that, from how he got out of the museum with the painting to everything that takes him Las Vegas back to New York and to Amsterdam.
Some of the problem stems from how Tartt moves the plot along. She seems to have two moves:
1) the death of a character or characters
2) absolute coincidence
I was also perplexed by Tartt’s apparent lack of control over point of view. It is often difficult to tell whether Theo is in the moment or reflecting on it. Tartt’s last minute, half-hearted explanation for why Theo is telling his story just doesn’t ring true. Instead, it seems like she’s trying to cover a gap she’s only realized after over 700 pages.
Tartt does little to integrate the tremendous amount of research she did for the book. There are lengthy treatises on art, antiques, and drugs. Sometimes, the details create credibility. More often, though, they are just dull.
Her writing can often be lyrical and purposeful. The ending made me wonder why she hadn’t infused those kinds of sentences throughout the book. Earlier, though, I had to re-read sentences to get the balance right, to find the subject, to wish that the unnecessary word (‘though’ and ‘still’ are repeat offenders) had been omitted.
Though I am sure she knows New York better than me, I don’t understand why the default here is that the characters are all white. The only person of color I remember is a man shouting into the air. Hispanic characters? Doormen. Twice, Theo describes things as “gay.” Really? Is this the teen Theo or the reflective one? Either one seems like he’d know better.
And why does Tartt flirt with introducing a homosexual motif throughout the novel? She’s coy about it and, as with so much else, erratic. Why is it even there?
Once, when he was taking a shot at Stanley Kubrick (I believe), Woody Allen dismissed the notion that taking a long time to make a movie necessarily made it – or its maker – great. Have we done that with Tartt? She’s notorious for the time between her novels. Are we therefore assuming that they don’t need editing (this one just goes on and on and on) and that we should just be so happy that they arrived?