First, let me say as a disclaimer that Donna Tartt is one of my favorite authors. I’ve only read two of her books—but then, she’s only written three. She writes a book about every ten years. Considering I’m just finishing edits on the book I began four years ago, I can relate to being on the slow program.

When The Goldfinch came out, it took me a while to finally get to it. At 771 pages, it just seemed so unwieldy—like don’t-drop-it-on-your-foot unwieldy. I could never seem to find the time to start a book that long. It was during one of Florida’s torrential rainstorms that I finally picked it up, and then I barely put it down for over a month. Within a few pages, I was captivated by the Tartt writing style that I’d grown to love from The Secret History. She is a commander of prose who combines an in-your-face bluntness with a comfortable smattering of verbosity, yet the overall impression is an economy of words we writers call “tight.”

So I found myself engaging in reading binges—hours at a time curled up in a chair, returning to work late from lunch, closing Panera’s . . . This, despite the fact that within the first few pages, the book dishes out an anachronism of the highest order that really caused me to, well, question whether I should be enjoying this book as much as I was.

For those who don’t know, I’m probably not giving anything away by saying that the inciting incident in the story takes place when the thirteen-year-old main character, Theo, accompanies his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. An explosion destroys part of the museum and kills scores of people. Amid the rubble and chaos, Theo makes his way out to the street and it is here that the first chronological error appears: “ . . . many people held cell phones aloft, attempting to snap pictures . . .”

Oops, That’s a Problem

I’ve always assumed, as a reader, that a story takes place pretty much within a year or two prior to its publication, unless I hear otherwise from the author. I have no reason to think a book takes place in the future if that fact is not clearly expressed.

So here’s the issue. The Goldfinch was published in 2013. It’s told from the perspective of Theo at 27, who is recounting what happened to him fourteen years ago, when he was thirteen. That would mean the explosion in the museum happened in 1999. So let’s think back for a minute . . . I had a cellphone in 1999, and it was the size of a brick, had a tiny gray screen, ran for only a couple hours without recharging, and absolutely positively did not have a camera feature.

But this book won the Pulitzer Prize! Perhaps I’m mis-remembering, I think. Maybe some people had camera phones in ’99. And besides, I’ve never been an early adopter, lagging about six months behind my friends in acquiring a cellphone in the first place. I suppose I could have had a camera phone back then if I hadn’t opted for the discount version in a Livingston Street store in downtown Brooklyn. So I disregard my skepticism and keep reading.

But then comes a guy in dreads, who’s “jabbing at the air with his fists and shouting to nobody in particular: ‘Buckle up, Manhattan! Osama bin Laden is rockin us again!’” Whoa, hold up a minute. This is a prochronism even more egregious than the previous one, as this line clearly sounds like something that would be said post-911, right?

Now, granted, in the late nineties, in the corridors of power, there was suspicion that bin Laden was behind the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, but would a random guy on the street know that? And if so, why the reference to Manhattan?

What Do You Think?

 So what does this mean, actually? What it meant for me was that I stepped outside as a reader. I was no longer engrossed in the story as much as I was standing back and saying, “Wait a minute; this doesn’t make sense.”

Other glitches popped up occasionally throughout the book. For example, a few months later in the story, still in 1999, Theo and his friends are using iPods, which were not available until late 2001.

Perhaps I’m being too picky. But errors like this make me feel like I’m not in good hands as a reader. I’m curious what others think. How is your reading experience affected when a book has factual errors, anachronisms, things that don’t make sense? Do you find them distracting, or are you able to disregard and enjoy the story in spite of them?


5 Responses

  1. Mariela Reiss

    Hi Kate! I have to admit, errors like that would throw me out of a story immediately. Suspension of disbelief is one thing; I wouldn’t hold up a fantasy novel to such a strict standard. And I wouldn’t hold science fiction to such a standard, either (mostly because I wouldn’t catch science errors if they hit me on the head). But a book set in recent history? A history we all can remember? Nope. A couple of errors like that and I would probably walk away. Life is too short and there are plenty of other books to read out there.

  2. Kelly

    I didn’t even notice this when I was reading – which I think is testimony to her skill as a writer. I was so engaged in the narrative that I didn’t catch that the later periods in the book didn’t seem to be set in the future. Which, as you say, they would have to be given the technology available in the earlier years of the story.
    I agree factual errors and discrepancies undermine the authority of the writer and the book. Not only does it take you out of the world the book is creating, I think it makes you wonder if the writer can’t get the basic facts right, can we trust that characters, their actions and their emotions are portrayed in an accurate way? The author sort of becomes an unreliable witness.
    I agree with Mariela that genre matters – I would find this particularly annoying in historical fiction, which I like to read both for the story and to find out more about life in a particular time and a place. Having said that, I wouldn’t catch many day in the life historical errors so I would read reviews on a book first – if experts found it to be inaccurate, I just wouldn’t read it.
    Generally, the lighter or more fantastical the book, the less I would be bothered by factual errors since those books tend to have purposes (make the reader laugh, create suspense, melodrama, etc.) that don’t require as much of an adherence to reality.

  3. Dianna Gunn

    I think this is honestly a big part of why I’ve only ever written fantasy fiction taking place on other planets. It’s so much easier to create my own world than to accurately represent details in this one, especially in the historical periods I’m most fascinated with.

  4. Kelly

    That’s interesting, Diana. While it is easy to find information about leaders and philosophy and culture, say, in 1100 China, it is a lot more difficult to research the “day in the life” details for an average person of that time period and know you are getting it right.