Every once in a while, if you’re really lucky, you come across a book that speaks directly to you, and describes your world while simultaneously introducing it to you as if for the first time. I can count on two hands the books that have done that for me. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was one. The World According to Garp—which, it seemed to me, absolutely everybody was reading, in paperback, the summer before my senior year in college—was another. Some people feel this way about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And, of course, Harry Potter.
The Goldfinch is that kind of novel to me: a huge, rambling but still somehow tightly plotted, Dickensian tale of a boy and his beloved mother, and how her loss so unmoored him that, fourteen years and myriad misadventures later, he’s still grieving. I fell for it partly because as the mother of a son just off to college, it pulled the requisite heart strings. But The Goldfinch is more than a coming-of-age novel, though it is that, in the largest sense. It’s a rumination on art and truth, comparable in scope and importance (and this was the opinion of many reviewers, not just me) to Great Expectations and other famous bildungsromans. (And yes, one reviewer suggested, not kindly, that it was more JK Rowling than Dickens.)
Here’s what real people I know said about this book:
“I feel like I’ll have a hole in my life when I’m done with this book.”
“I started it thinking it would take so long to read all 750+ pages, and now I’m parceling it out to myself so it won’t end too soon.”
“Over the moon” is the common, old fashioned way some readers are putting it. I’ll just put it this way: I spent one weekend this summer sitting on the porch with an advance copy in my hands, moving my chair a few inches to the right to catch the sun as it rose, travelled across the sky and set, ten glorious Goldfinch pages at a time.
I guess a lot of people are obsessed. The book was in the top 10 on Amazon before it was even published, that’s how great the anticipation and advance word have been. It’s still there after publication, which suggests it doesn’t disappoint.
The Goldfinch is not perfect. It’s long, for sure. (“She writes two sentences for every one she needs to write,” says one woman I know. So did Faulkner, I say. And Tartt’s sentences are funnier, besides) Its last 100 pages flies off a cliff in an operatic stupor. But maybe it had to be that way, the less painful the reader’s separation anxiety to come.
The worst part? Knowing that since a book this moving, this enthralling and enveloping comes along, as I said, only every once in a while, it will be many, many moons until we see its like again.
This piece comes from our free Best Books of 2013: Reader's Guide, which you can download now for your Kindle. It features interviews, essays, excerpts, and other fun extras about the year’s top 20 titles: Donna Tartt talks about her eating habits while writing The Goldfinch; Khaled Hosseini’s publicist discusses what it’s like to be on a national tour with him; David Finkel discusses the emotional impact following the 2-16 infantry battalion in Thank You for Your Service; and much more.