Great Expectations and/or/of The Goldfinch

Confession number 1: I came within 150 pages of finishing The Goldfinch and had to put it down.

Confession number 2: I’m purposely avoiding googling comparisons of Donna Tartt with Dickens because I’m sure there are much more astute ones out there.

Confession number 3: I do believe that better living is possible through enhanced biochemistry.

Back to number 1. I know I’m not the only one who got bogged down in The Goldfinch especially the long passages related to relentless drug and alcohol abuse. But that wasn’t why I ultimately had to set it aside. It’s very rare for me to read that much of a book and not finish. But the only time I really have to read is the evenings and I just couldn’t stomach the book before bed. It wasn’t so much the drug and alcohol abuse as the world of pain occupied by the main character and his inability to deal with that pain in any other way.  It just got so bleak. So hopeless.

Then I started thinking about Dickens -whom I’ve always loved. So many of his novels are epic in length and rather bleak in outlook. But there is always hope (and incidentally far less xanax). Even at the end of a Tale of Two Cities when Sidney Carton is about to sacrifice his life for the happiness of the woman he unrequitedly loves, he goes to his death believing it is a “far better thing” he is doing then what he had ever done. In Dickens there is always someone willing to share their last crust of bread even if it’s moldy. Not so with Tartt. What is shared in her novels is pain, the experience of it and the brief chemically induced escape from it. Again and again, in her other novels too, this stands in for friendship and even for love.

I bet Donna Tartt is a Dickens reader and admirer. How could she not be when so many of her characters share his characters’ pedigree. Theo -the orphan, Hobie is like a Miss Havisham and of course Pippa (a Dickensian name if ever there was one) is his Estella. Even Boris, arguably the most life-embracing, entertaining character of the novel has something of an artful dodger in him.  All the ways that Tartt plays with class in this novel are themes right out of the pages of any great Dickens novel.

So what? Is Tartt a great writer and a great story-teller? Undoubtedly. I suppose I wish she could take one more page from Dickens and find the hope in her stories. I made it through The Secret History and The Little Friend but ultimately The Goldfinch lost me or rather I lost hope in it.

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