“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
Five years and 87 novels later, I’ve done it; I’ve finally done it. I’ve crossed the finish line. The Pulitzer Project is officially over. (Well—until April 13, 2015, when the newest winner will be announced).
And I have to say, finishing it all up with the most recent recipient—Donna Tartt’s 2014 winner, The Goldfinch—was a fitting a conclusion as this novel perfectly encapsulated all of the joy, confusion, frustration, happiness, sorrow, and anger of this entire Project in one concise (well, not so concise, really) volume.
The Goldfinch could have been a really, really amazing novel. Instead, it read like a confused, angsty teenager’s diary. But, like, a really talented confused, angsty teenager whose writing shows a ton of promise but lacks focus. Tartt is, obviously, a tremendous writer; but one whom, I felt, seems a little too enamored with her own skill.
A lot of other readers have considered this novel Dickensian in nature, and I think that’s completely accurate. Not only are there overt references to Charles Dickens and his works throughout the novel and not only are a lot of the themes that Dickens employed present in this novel (orphans, crime, rags-to-riches, aristocracy, lower class struggles), this was a painfully bloated novel; much like Dickens, this book really made it seem like Donna Tartt was being paid by the word—particularly in the last chapter, when it took a real sharp left turn for the weird/existential/cerebral.
Though, I mean, it’s not like the entire book isn’t without bizarre, out of place philosophical and theological ramblings. Because it is. In fact, it’s overstuffed with them. Just take a look at this gem:
“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
This horribly out of place and completely unlikely statement was meant to be spoken by a drunk and high 15 year old Russian boy. And when you’re reading a book that is all about crime and the seedy underbelly of illegal art dealing, long pieces of theological musings like this one are all the more out of place.
Oh yeah—this one, too:
“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”
The strangest part of the novel, though, was reading all of the 1-star and 5-star reviews and agreeing with all of them. When somebody sang its praises, I completely agreed; when somebody totally ripped the book apart, I also completely agreed.
The Goldfinch was half brilliant and half bullshit.
Tartt wrote a fantastic story with an entirely gripping plot, but quickly wrote herself into a corner. Then, instead of hiring a fantastic editor who would go through it and eliminate all of the pointless, rambling lashings of existential dread, she doggedly trudged through the rest of the story then slapped on an incoherent string of fortune cookie sentiments as a concluding chapter that made no sense.
And the fact that it took Tartt ten years to write it…? Boy oh boy.
How would I summarize this novel using one sentence from another Pulitzer-winning novel? “The bridge is love” (The Bridge of San Luis Rey). I would also liken this entire novel to one of Cormac McCarthy’s metaphors: long-winded and pretty, but probably lacking substance; it sounds great, but you’re really not sure what it means.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.