Quotes & Notes: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

the goldfinch


The other section of Honors English was reading Great Expectations. Mine was reading Walden; and I hid myself in the coolness and silence of the book, a refuge from the sheet-metal glare of the desert. During the morning break (where we were rounded up and made to go outside, in a chain-fenced yard near the vending machines), I stood in the shadiest corner I could find with my mass-market paperback and, with a red pencil, went through and underlined a lot of particularly bracing sentences: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” What would Thoreau have made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams, its projections and hollow facades? (234)

I was too disoriented by my surroundings to listen very closely and with almost painfully heightened senses I stirred at the potato mess with my fork and felt the strangeness of the city pressing in all around me, smells of tobacco and malt and nutmeg, cafe walls the melancholy brown of an old leather-bound book and then beyond, dark passages and brackish water lapping, low skies and old buildings all leaning against each other with a moody poetic, edge-of-destruction feel, the cobblestoned loneliness of a city that felt – to me, anyway – like a place where you might come to let the water close over your head. (649)


If I had to tell you in just a few words what The Goldfinch is about, I would say it is about grief and guilt. It’s about all the ways we punish ourselves  because we think we deserve it.

It was difficult not to compare The Goldfinch to The Secret History and I have a general question about both:

  • Do people really talk that way? Or do Theo and Richard from The Secret History just wish they do? Both are people who come from humble beginnings and find themselves thrown into a group of wealthier people and everyone seems to talk with this almost  caricature intonation of what I imagine wealthy people sound like. Is that intentional on Donna Tartt’s part?

Theo was a very frustrating narrator. Not in a bad way, I think it was very intentional. Theo feels very real to me in a way that Richard did not.

I was talking to a friend at work about Donna Tartt’s two books and I feel like they are always presented as being big and important and inaccessible when really they are long, plot-driven books about all the different ways a perfectly normal person’s life can be derailed until it is unrecognizable through a mix of fate and their own choices. I don’t think the cover of The Secret History really does it any favors in terms of changing this reputation. I do love the packaging of The Goldfinch. It’s a beautifully designed book.

The Goldfinch is a good book, but I just liked The Secret History more. The first two sections of The Goldfinch are amazing and I’d like to go through and reread the first one again. I often feel this way, because I don’t really get into the swing of a book until I’m about a third of the way in and I always wonder what I missed in the beginning. I wish I had quoted something from the first section.

It looks as though the actual painting The Goldfinch is in The Frick? I think I’ll go see it.

14 thoughts on “Quotes & Notes: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

  1. I too preferred THE SECRET HISTORY. Part of me thinks it was just one of those books that i read at the right moment in my life. And no, people do not talk like that in real life (but i wish i did).

    1. Sometimes I wish I did too. I agree with you about The Secret History. Perfect timing. It’s not a perfect book and on my reread I was able to objectively see all its flaws, but I still simply didn’t care about them.

    1. I don’t know that you really need to read them in any kind of order. I wonder if it would be a “which one you read first” kind of thing.

  2. Ditto Kailana – I need to read The Secret History and I admit that I am more excited to now than I had been when I first tbr’d it.
    And talk about people actually talking like a fictional character? I am so over my head in confusion with Brideshead Revisited. Did college kids in the 1920s in England really talk like this?
    I honestly didn’t have an issue with Theo and how he said things. Hmmmm. I did however question his being in 8th grade and having deep knowledge of Franny & Zooey by Salinger. First hint that this is ALL WRONG or the kid is REALLY ODD. Couldn’t decide so I kept reading. Of course, I was also most impressed with myself for having read Franny and Zooey.

  3. I haven’t read anything by this author, but as I mentioned via Twitter, this book keeps popping up in my life. I am curious, and your review emphasized that!

    PS The Frick? Isn’t that in Pittsburgh? I moved to Pittsburgh in Sept., and if you live here too I’d love to meet you and hang out in real life sometime. That would be nifty – I’ve been reading your blog for several years. 🙂

  4. I will undoubtedly be reading this book sometime in the nearish future (it is a finalist for the annual Tournament of Books, so that is certainly incentive to tackle it before March) and I am curious to see how I respond to it. I’ve only heard praise for it, but then again, I’ve never come across anyone who loves books who didn’t also love The Secret History. Except for me! I didn’t hate it or anything, but I didn’t love it the way that many other bloggers seem to, so I do wonder whether that’s foreshadowing how I’ll feel about The Goldfinch, or perhaps means I might like this more (as I’ll be less likely to feel it pales in comparison to her other works). I guess there’s only one way to find out!

  5. Can’t believe I still haven’t read The Secret History. Well, actually I can–so many dang books I’m dying to read and haven’t gotten around to yet. I’m not sure why, but this one hasn’t called to me as much–probably because I just don’t know much about it.
    This post reminded me of how I wanted to copy your idea of saving at least one quote from each book I read this year…*sigh* and I already blew it with my first read of the year. 😦 Oh well, doesn’t mean I can’t go from here, right?

  6. Do people talk about Donna Tartt as being inaccessible? I agree with you, I don’t think she is at all. The Secret History isn’t that far off from being a murder mystery, albeit a very very good one. I think your summary of what her books are about it excellent. It’s that idea that a normal person’s life can spiral out of control through inaction that draws me — in this book as well as Secret History.

    1. I don’t know if people talk about it, but that’s always the impression people seem to take away. Whenever I try to convince people to read The Secret History, they think it’s going to be stuffy and hard to read and it’s not at all! Perhaps it is the cover doing all the talking and not what people actually say.

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