At 784 pages, Donna Tartt‘s “The Goldfinch” is a hefty chunk of book, the kind that’s hard to tote around and read during off times, impossible to lazily prop up on the beach and difficult to casually read on the bus or the train or the whatever. It is, however, extremely rewarding for any reader who plunges past the first hundred or so pages and keeps on going through a sprawling story that zips between emotions and times and places with crisp regularity.
Tartt’s book has been the talk of the book world for months now, bolstered by its Pulitzer Prize win and a steady spot on the New York Times bestseller list (it has also garnered some major detractors along the way, as Vanity Fair reminded us earlier this summer), but its length and skipping narrative may have scared some potential readers off. So how about a movie version then? Entertainment Weekly reports that Warner Bros. has now picked up the film rights to the book, so you better start reading now, lest you be left behind when this thing goes cinematic. Still on the fence? Well, let’s talk about it.
Yes, 784 pages is a lot. It’s a lot for anyone (even myself, who loves reading and has always been a relatively quick reader). The first few pages of the novel aren’t exactly zippy — it presents to us a young Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy living in Manhattan with his beloved mother in the days after his no-good father has finally left the pair, mainly because he’s, well, no-good (and also an abusive alcoholic). Theo’s bond with his mother has always been strong, and Tartt works to lull her readers into a false sense of passably happy domesticity, even with all the bad stuff happening just on the fringes of things. The book really gets going when Theo and his mother (an art buff) pop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at some of their favorite paintings (including the eponymous “Goldfinch” — a real work of art) before having a meeting at Theo’s school about his bad behavior.
You’re bored, right? It’s okay, because soon everything slams together, with Tartt introducing a pair of characters who will soon play a major part in Theo’s life and tossing a terrorist bombing into the mix. That’s right, a bomb, one that kills Theo’s mom and decimates part of the Met and gives Theo an opportunity to do something wild — steal “The Goldfinch.”
The rest of the book (read: the majority of the book) skips forward in time to track Theo’s life after the attack. It’s not great, but Tartt applies a level of care and detail to the various parts of his life that’s admirable and engaging. Theo tries to live in New York with friends, Theo gets sent to Las Vegas to live with his dirtbag dad, Theo comes back to New York as an adult, Theo goes to Amesterdam to recover the painting. Along the way, Theo slips deeper and deeper into criminality and deviance, and even the love of some good friends and the specter of the painting can’t save him. But “The Goldfinch” isn’t a book about drugs or crime or bad decisions, it’s a full-bodied thing that, for lack of a better word, just spans a life. (And, it has to be noted, Tartt’s take on Theo’s teen years in the burnt-out suburbs of Las Vegas are the most true-to-life portrayal of such an experience I’ve ever read as someone who lived in Las Vegas for her own teen years.)
“The Goldfinch” may not leap immediately off the page, but when it gets going, this thing really gets going. Advising that material is cut down to make it suitable for cinematic consumption isn’t normally the sort of thing that book lovers go for, but in this case, it’s what’s going to make The Goldfinch the movie a winner. It’s going to make something that’s kind of hard to consume on its own — or, at least, challenging to consume — easier to take down. And then everyone can just read the book, too.
The film will offer a nice range of characters for a large cast to play: Theo’s mom, Theo’s dad, Theo at age thirteen and then in his twenties, the entire Barbour family (also in younger years and then aged up), Theo’s beloved Pippa at age thirteen and then in her twenties, Theo’s best pal Boris as a teen slacker and then in his twenties, Welty who almost saved Theo, and Hobie who did save him. There’s room here for some young teen stars to break through with meaty roles that don’t involve vampires or archery skills, but also parts for twentysomethings, fortysomethings, sixtysomethings and right on up. The book’s pedigree also means that we can expect a solid cast to line up for the feature.
“The Goldfinch” is also a cross-genre affair, with something that should appeal to everyone. Really — it’s got family drama, teen angst, a big romance, thrilling intrigue, a brainy bent towards art and a fast-paced crime-laced subplot to tie it all up. You’d be hard-pressed to walk away from “The Goldfinch” without finding at least one thing that appeals to you.
If that can all be crammed into a film — and, fingers crossed that this things snags top tier talent behind and in front of the camera — Tartt’s novel will reach an even wider audience, perhaps making everyone feel a little less afraid of a book that’s nearly 800 pages. They’re worth it.