A week ago I visited the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg (Fl.) using an audio guide system.

This self portrait was painted when Dali was seventeen. The audio guide informed me that Dali had emulated the great artists Rembrandt and Velasquez  before he found his own surrealistic style. According to Dali, an artist must first copy the greats of the past before finding his/her own style into the future.

Of course,  Dali’s style changed tremendously from that of this portrait but it made me think how in my own writing I have often been influenced by great writers, from Virginia Woolf to Alice Munro to James M. Cain to name just a few.

I  am still being influenced. These days I lean on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Is it coincidental or serendipity that The Goldfinch is based on a painting by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt?

There is much good to be said about this almost flawless 700+ page novel. There’s the compelling, rich plot; scenes written in such sparkling, poetic prose that I reread them for their pure joy. Then there’s the mix of characters (drug addicts, abusive fathers, gamblers, eccentrics, gangsters – Theo, the protagonist’s  tender relationship with his mother).

There are the intimate details that bring you up close right into the scene. It was in reading Tartt’s descriptions of rooms that made me go back to one of my novels and use her as model to add more details.

What struck me was her odd, almost rebellious usage of  punctuation. A clue to this in-congruent punctuation can be found in her main character, Theo, when talking about his literature classes:

“English is going to be really boring for the next six weeks – we stopped doing literature and went back to the grammar book and now we’re diagramming sentences.”

Is this Donna Tartt’s wink on the rigorousness of punctuation? Take for example her usage of the question mark:

“…he had this whole set of friends we didn’t know about and they sent him postcards when they went on vacation to places like the Virgin Islands? to our home address? which was how we found out about it?

Or her usage of dashes:

“Look that’s different and you know it. Mommy,” she said talking over me –

“-Oh yeah? Different? Raising my voice over hers. How is it different? How?”

“-Mommy, I swear – listen to me, Theo –Mommy loves you so much. S0 much…

In conversation with her editor Michael Pietsch at Slate, Tartt had this to say about literary stylistics:

I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I’ve intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.

Lexical variety, eccentric constructions and punctuation, variant spellings, archaisms, the ability to pile clause on clause, the effortless incorporation of words from other languages: flexibility, and inclusiveness, is what makes English great; and diversity is what keeps it healthy and growing, exuberantly regenerating itself with rich new forms and usages.

Lately, I’ve been coming across articles on setting as character (material for further posts?) but after reading The Goldfinch I am  more relaxed around punctuation and wonder if perhaps creative punctuation could not also contribute to the personality, voice and tone of the novel, just as setting does?

On the other hand, I was  anxious to get to the mystery of the painting and found myself skimming over the long paragraphs regarding the restoration of furniture.

I have not finished writing about The Goldfinch for, in a future post,  I particularly want to talk about its powerful ending. This is where Donna Tartt truly glows. After reading her exposition on The Goldfinch as painting I will never again see a work of art in the same way. As for her honest and raw elucidation on life and death…well, it is absolutely riveting and that alone is well worth reading this book.

27 thoughts on “[THANK YOU] DONNA TARTT

  1. Interesting about her use of punctuation. Better known authors can get away with this kind of thing, but I can’t imagine a newbie author doing so. I suspect an agent would promptly deposit such a manuscript in the slush pile. Sounds like a great book. I see on Amazon that she got an editorial review from Stephen King. That would be nice. 🙂


  2. Enjoyed reading your article on Donna Tartt and her novel, The Goldfinch. If I get a chance, I hope to get a copy and explore it as you have. Looks like a masterpiece.


  3. I can’t wait to read this book. I think I need to stop blogging for a while because I keep adding too many books to my to-be-read pile!


  4. Very interesting post. There seems to be so much ongoing controversy with use and accused misuse of punctuation and grammar in writing. For newer authors like myself I am almost scared to break the rules for fear of getting chastised by my editor but on the other hand, I love the freedom of expression with punctuation. Perhaps when I get a little more known I will expand my freedoms. 🙂


    • Well, I found myself more confident with punctuation after reading her book and the interview with her editor.
      But I know what you mean about being more well known. Some people may be offended by “improper” use of punctuation and consider the book not very well edited.


    • I think it works for most writers or painters. It’s like learning to write as a child. First you trace the letters and you do that finally enough times that you have your own signature.


  5. The only legitimate reason for rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc is clarity. Most rules and standardizations are intended to increase or ensure clarity and too much deviation is likely to diminish clarity. I don’t think you should break rules just to break them – unless you’re trying to make that point. That said, if you can be clear without following rules, or if you can perhaps be clearer by not following than by following them, then more power to you!


  6. Hi Carol! I just read “The Goldfinch” and loved it. Brilliant writing. There are so many “how to” books on writing that tell us to use short sentences, keep the descriptions to a minimum, etc., etc., so Tartt’s flagrant disregard thrilled me. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book.


    • Hi-
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂
      I think that Donna Tartt pushes the envelope. Her book is a masterpiece that needs to be savored and not rushed through. There is so much beauty in its structure and prose.


  7. Pingback: The Goldfinch – Escapades Reviews

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