The endurance course titled “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s modern 784-page masterpiece, tests the standard of making every word count. I won’t argue here that she did. The ending alone — a long discourse on the Meaning of Something or Other — may inspire a reader to ask, “I’ve come call this way for this?” On the other hand, the plot throughout thickens artfully, and the characters are Dickensian.
Much has been written of course about Tartt’s eleven-years-in-the-making, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. So my commentary is limited here to the ways that I experienced The Goldfinch.
1. Listening, part 1. I heard the first two hundred pages as read by actor David Pittu. Foreign accents can be an enormous problem in such performances — the narrator, for example, of Donna Leon novels, all set in Venice, makes Italians sound like Russians. But Pittu makes the Russian character Boris in Tartt’s novel sound Russian, and delightfully so.
2. The next five hundred pages were consumed the old fashioned way, by hoisting the book onto my lap and turning its pages. In this way I could return again and again — harder to do when listening — to parts that stuck with me, such as narrator Theo Decker’s three-page description of clinical depression, as good, I think, as Styron’s.
3. The Kindle version was next. Here I was able to turn the body of work into 14-point type — an advantage to someone with 70-year-old eyes. The disadvantage is that 14-point type turns the book into 2,800 pages, a measure that can daunt even the most devoted reader caught up the novel’s plots and subplots from the very start when a terrorist bomb goes off in the Metropolitan Museum and a great work of art becomes the object of investigation and the metaphor for Theo’s life.
4. Listening, part 2. I was knocked out by an antibiotic, and so couldn’t read the ending. Happily,my wife came to the rescue. We often read to each other in bed. Suzanne delivered the final 50 Kindle pages as I tried to keep my eyes open. Suzanne is a poet, not an actor like David Pittu, but she acquitted herself well. Still, I don’t know anyone who exults at the finish of this novel — no shouts of “Brava!” for the author, but more like an ordinary standing ovation after a Pinter play, audience members congratulating themselves for not ducking out after the first act. On the other hand, rewards surely come from sticking with Tartt, as with any genuine work of literary art.