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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Why I'll never know if The Goldfinch has a good ending

I once walked out of a screening of Pearl Harbour ten minutes before the end. Considering at that point I'd put up with its shortcomings for over three hours you might have thought I would have stayed for that last bit of action. I didn't because it's long- windedness had made me so cross I wanted to strike back in the only way available to me. You may have had my money but I'm damned if you're going to waste another ten minutes of my life.

I've just bailed out of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch around page 700, which is a hundred pages from the end. I'd been reading it on holiday this week and for most of that time I enjoyed it: good premise, a few excellent characters and lots of educational material about the world of fake antiques. But I fell out with it for the same three reasons I fall out with so many books.

1. The hero goes through a major drugs phase. I'm sure drugs can be enormous fun to take but they're always tedious to read about.

2. It gets violent near the end. Violence has its place in fiction. I think it should be dealt with in a paragraph. If you're expecting me to keep track of who's got the deadliest weapon and which room in the house they're lurking in and expecting me to remember the name of more than one wrong un then frankly you're talking to the wrong reader.

3. In straining for a finish that justifies what's gone before, the book tired me out. It spends the last three hundred pages pumping itself up for a big finish. During that time I lost the thread, lost interest in finding out how it ended and eventually, somewhere under the Channel on Le Shuttle, gave up.

I learned a lot about the endings of stories when we were doing True Stories Told Live. Since having an ending is the thing which distinguishes fiction from real life, it's the bit that the storyteller agonises most about, often to the detriment of the story.

What storytellers fail to realise is that even if we're enjoying things we can't wait for them to end. Films, concerts, parties, novels, it's all the same.

I think it was Oscar Hammerstein who said, give them a good opening number and they'll forgive you anything.

I think it was me who said the best ending is always the one that comes along soonest.