Bestseller Breakdown: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


It’s always exciting when a favourite writer brings out a new book.  I was utterly thrilled on the publication of The Goldfinch last October, but I’ve only just set aside time to read it.  Tartt is one of those writers with hype: she only brings out a book every ten years, her writing garnering followers who eagerly wait for her next literary move.  Her first book, The Secret History, was published when she was barely out of college and was a best-best-super-bestseller.  I’ll be re-reading that one next. (What is Bestseller Breakdown?)

For me, The Goldfinch has reestablished my awe of her as a writer, and I’m so happy that she is still out there, writing: that there will be more books of hers to savour in our lifetime.  It gives me hope and makes me want to be a better writer.

What people are saying:

Critical reception: The reviews of the book have been largely very positive. It has been compared to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Doestoesky’s Crime and Punishment The New York Times calls it ‘an outstanding work of fiction’, The Guardian praises its ‘emotional register’, The Telegraph calls it ‘richly wrought entertainment’.  However, The Sunday Times calls it an ‘ineptly put-together…turkey’.

Reader reviews: Taking the total number of reviews from, and Goodreads, the percentage of 4 and 5 star reviews was 77%.  The readers who gave 1 and 2 star reviews mainly thought the book was too long, too dense, needed editing, didn’t connect with the characters, or didn’t enjoy the references to underage drinking/drugs and the underworld.  The stats from the three websites and the totals can be seen here:

The Goldfinch Stats

Aspects of the Novel:

Plot or character driven? : Hard to determine, which is what I think makes the book so powerful (see below for more details!)

Setting: New York (Upper East Side and the Village), Las Vegas, Amsterdam

Dialogue: Very realistic, in all the various settings, despite different character backgrounds.  For example, Tartt is egually strong at aristocratic Upper East Side character voices as at Russian, Polish and Ukrainian dialects, each being explored to great effect.

Structure: The book is divided into 5 sections, with chapters within them, further broken down into segments.  The variance in number of segments per chapter and number of chapters per section does not appear to have any pattern, as you can see below.  I would imagine Tartt moved organically between the different sections dependent on the setting and period of Theo’s life.

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 4.31.36 PM

Things I loved:

The Description

This book is very detail-heavy.  Each scene and character is described excruciatingly.  As a writer who tends to daub a rough outline of things, rather than paint them in in minaturist detail, I found this a little overwhelming at first.  Do we really need to know so much as a reader?  I’ve always been taught (by creative writing tutors and agents) to focus on what’s important and leave out any detail which doesn’t enhance your story in some way.

If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out

– Kurt Vonnegut

For this reason, it took me a long time to get into the book.  Theo’s character was engaging, and the dramatic action of the explosion in the art museum propelled me onwards, but I was a little slowed down by all the description.  It is done beautifully, and with such a deft hand, and the similes and metaphors engaged ring so true I underlined some of them.

However, once I was in, I was fully in.  I was so immersed in the world of the book, and of the characters, that I was propelled to keep reading for a number of reasons.  The plot, which is the conventional narrative driver, but also the hugely varied and multi-faceted characters.  I wanted to know what would happen to them.  I liked them and all their flaws.  And the truth is that all that detail at the beginning isn’t too much at all.  It was what allowed Tartt to create such a realistic world, and characters which will stay with the reader long after they finish the book.

The World

Leading on, this is something I hugely admired about the book.  Each of the settings of the book (Upper East Side New York, The Village New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam) were so well drawn and situated in the present day, that I was fascinated and absorbed.

Setting a book in the modern day is something I find difficult.  I need to be at a certain remove from something when I write about it: for the same reason, I can’t write about a place while I am still living there.  I need the distance.  So as a writer, I admire Tartt’s ability to explore the issues of the modern day and to really get to the heart of some timeless ideas about what makes us human.  Like the painting of the title, which speaks to characters in the book from 1654, I am sure this book will similarly speak across the generations despite its firm grounding in the present.

The Characters

Tartt really does plumb deep into the psychology of her characters.  All that buildup results in us understanding them over their lifetime: seeing them change and make mistakes in a totally believable way.  As Theo learns to stay true to himself, despite the flaws in his character, the reader watches his nature draw him into mistake after mistake, along with the other characters.  It is this inevitability which Theo goes back to at the end of the book, and which plays on the themes of fate and whether it is possible to break away from the inevitability of our own selves.  The book could be seen as a character study of Theo himself, but it is so much more than that: it has plot and story and this all intermingles to make it such a compelling read.

“What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster”

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch


I think the strengths of character and setting in this book are inextricably linked to the plot.  What happens to the characters and the painting seems inevitable.  I think that the fact that I can’t see where one ends and the other begins is the terrible power of this book.  I can’t see the puppet strings.  I’m not sure which came first, the idea for the story, or the characters; if one grew out of the other, or the characters were designed to fulfill the story Tartt already had in mind.  When I can’t see the artistry behind the piece of art, I know know it is wonderful.  Every detail, however small, comes to seem relevant.  I wouldn’t take out a single word.  This is a book of amazing power, and it will have to find a place amongst my favourite books, as well as those which make me so envious I could scream.

Things I will take away as a writer:

That slow and steady wins the race.  I read in an interview with Donna Tartt that she works when she wants to, as she never wants writing to feel like a job.  I think I can take something from this: that sometimes books need fermentation, and trying to rush them out damages rather than improves them.  We need to sink into our characters and stories like stepping into a swimming pool, and that takes time.  I promise to give myself that time.

I’m excited to return to The Secret History next and see if it has the same power.  It was Tartt’s first novel, and the biggest seller (so far) out of her three books.

Has anyone else read The Goldfinch?  What did you think?

Want more?  Read my Bestseller Breakdown for The Secret History and The Little Friend, Tartt’s other novels.

Check out my introduction to the Bestseller Breakdown feature here.

And here’s a great review of The Goldfinch from the folks at Toast.


11 Comments on “Bestseller Breakdown: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. I really loved this book! I dived it into with no prior knowledge and didn’t realise how long it would be which didn’t turn out to be an issue but by the end I was a little impatient to find out how it all turned out. I felt like I got to know every character intimately and the story has stayed with me and will continue to stay with me for a very long time. The detail, whilst a little overwhelming at first, paints the story in such depth and vibrancy, making you feel like you are a secret insider, privy to the gradual unfolding of the story over the course of the book. I loved your detailed analysis and agree with you fully. This book has already become a firm favourite of mine and I would recommend it to anyone with no hesitation.

  2. I have yet to read the book as I’m making my way through her second book “the little friend”.
    As gripping and as descriptive and detailed as ever. But my favourite book remains ‘ the secret history”. Never read a book so enthralling and powerful ever! I’m looking forward to reading “the Goldfinch”. Thank you for your review of the book. ((:

  3. I’m fascinated by this breakdown, especially your comments about the level of detail. I love the quote you shared too – beautiful. definitely want to read this sooner rather than later.

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