Top critical review
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Too much of a good thing
on 6 April 2014
There's no doubt that Donna Tartt is a good writer. She has a lovely way with words and expertly manages every scene, conjuring vivid and effective images. In fact, 50% of this book would make a five star novel. The problem is that it's diluted by the other 50%, which is irrelevant padding. Good, well written, padding - but padding nonetheless. It starts very strongly, with an initial chapter set in the 'present' of the story where the protagonist (Theo) is hiding out in Amsterdam in mysterious circumstances. Then it flashes back to the terrorist explosion that changed the course of Theo's life as a thirteen year old boy. The description of the explosion and the weeks following it is extremely strong, powerful writing and makes an excellent start.
But it then loses its way somewhat, with a very long interlude describing Theo's misspent youth in the Las Vegas desert. Again, it's well written in itself, but by the end I was beginning to wonder where the story was going. I vaguely knew it was building towards the interesting-sounding scenario in chapter 1, but it was so long I could barely remember what that had described. I felt rather lost, and the subsequent section - again well written - still didn't give much structure. It does get there in the end, and with plenty of flashes of brilliance along the way, but it just takes way too long.
I liked the character of Theo, he's an interesting but ultimately sympathetic character even though I didn't entirely like some of his behaviour. There were some other well drawn characters too, and the descriptive writing is very good. The underlying idea for the story - the core plot - is a reasonable idea but it just gets lost and bogged down in the rather futile machinations of Theo's love life and the endless descriptions of the drugs he takes and alcohol he drinks. There's nothing more dull and dispiriting than reading about the miserable existence of someone addicted to drugs and booze, and the after effects of them. We really don't need as much of it as there is in this book. One good powerful description would be enough, and we can then simply imagine it repeated over and over again across the years.
There's also too much philosophising and angsting. Some people might find the descriptions of art and furniture also overdone, although I actually found these interesting despite often not enjoying lengthy passages on things like that. It's such a shame, because Tartt proves on almost every page that what she actually writes is good - it's just someone needed to ruthlessly edit it down by about half. I must admit to feeling relieved when I finally got to the end, which I wouldn't normally with a book of this underlying quality.
If you enjoy literary writing and don't mind a slowish plot, you will almost certainly love this novel. If you don't have patience with lengthy diversions then you might have to give it a miss. There's no doubt it's a good novel, it's just a question of whether you can sit through all the waffling to uncover the gems that lie within. I'll still look forward to Tartt's next novel, but I just hope she can rein in the length and not let her plot get lost.