So James Wood of the New Yorker didn’t like The Goldfinch, saying that several aspects of the story place it in the category of children’s literature, with some fantastical coincidences, and overwriting, and sometimes cliched characters. And, he said, The Goldfinch tends to bring us back to the nineteenth century like the Dickensian novels it has been compared to. I have not read Tartt’s other two novels so cannot speak to Wood’s claims that The Goldfinch is a regression in her writing, but I submit to you that the child-like nature of some of the writing in this book is doe so largely by design.
What is the best known children’s book series in the world today? This is what is known as a rhetorical question, because everyone should know that it is Harry Potter. What does Boris call Theo throughout the entire novel? No coincidence. Hobie is the archetypal and oxymoronic gentle giant (Hagrid, anyone?). Hell, there is even a character called Lucius, who has perfected the polished exterior, hiding a criminal and generally bad person beneath. Only a bad writer – and Tartt is not a bad writer – would make obvious reference to Harry Potter with no purpose. There is even a reference near the end of the novel to Theo seeing his mother in a mirror (of erased?). As I write this post, it occurs to me that Tartt might have started writing this novel by asking the question: what would have happened if Harry had become friends with Draco Malfoy instead of Ron Weasley? What if he had been sorted into Slyer and not Gryffindor? What if Harry’s parents died just as he was about to start at Hogwarts . .
But I digress.
Whether Theo Decker did start out as Harry Potter minus magic is irrelevant to the story. It makes perfect sense that much of the writing seems to be overly dramatic and somewhat childish. Theo’s life essentially stopped the day the box went off. Sure he went on living, he didn’t just hole up and die, but he remained fixated on his mother’s favourite painting, and on a girl he saw only moments before. He had no one to really take him in hand after that time. He was left with generally god principles, instilled by his mother, but he spends the rest of the novel being influenced by his father, who is a compulsive gambler, by Boris is the cliche of a Russian, especially in his adult years. The Barbours are mired in their own issues which include mental health troubles, and Mrs. Barbours focus on charities, rather than on her family. Hobie, bless his heart, is indeed a warm and caring father figure, but acts more of a master teaching an apprentice than he does a father.
Theo is essentially on his own from the day his mother dies, with no one taking a real guiding hand in the rest of his upbringing. It is hardly surprising that he turns out the way he does. He tries to do right by people, but goes about it in the wrong way. And we do see that he had been heading that way in the very first pages of the book. He had been suspended from school for smoking. It had been his friend, Tom, who had been doing it, not Theo (which leads to much guilt, too) One wonders what would have happened if Theo’s mother had been there to see the discipline through, and to install more morals in her son.
As for the artifice that Wood mentions in Tartt’s writing, I find it most in the New York scenes. I might be stepping on toes here, having never been someone to rub noses with ‘society,’ but it seems to me that some of this is a product of the art world itself.