Posted April 21, 2014 by in Literary Prizes

Pulitzer Prize Winners Duel: Goldfinch vs. Orphan Master’s Son


e have a winner. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch claimed this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. We sort of called it in our 2014 Pulitzer Prize Predictions post. It’s a choice that has many bibliophiles debating whether Tartt deserved the award. Sure, she has a flock of fans, but naysayers, of course, abound. We decided to pit it against last year’s winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, to see how it stacks up. So, Bookkaholics, I present to you a duel of (award-)worthiness: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch versus Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.

Round 1 (The Story):

Looking at The Goldfinch and The Orphan Master’s Son, one thing is obvious: both books are tomes. A lot of pages usually means a lot of story. That’s definitely the case with our two books in questions. But which one has the best story? First, let’s talk about The Goldfinch. The plot is multi-layered and winding. When we meet Theo, Tartt’s protagonist, he is thirteen and with his mom at an art gallery. They are enjoying their time together when suddenly a bomb goes off. It’s a terrorist attack. His Mom dies and so do many other patrons. Hysteria ensues, as Theo tries to free himself from it all. In his escape, he grabs a valuable painting. Theo’s Dad isn’t around, so Theo fears going to an orphanage. He doesn’t wind up in any home. Instead, he goes to live with his friend Andy Barbour. Things go well there, but happiness never lasts forever—at least not for Theo. His father returns and takes him away. While living with his father, Theo grows up in a world of problems. He has access to drugs, alcohol, and money. Also, Theo meets Boris, a young companion, who is the definition of trouble. After many episodes of trouble and adolescent angst, Theo finally breaks away from Boris. He returns to New York and goes to live with an older friend and antique dealer, Hobie Hobart. Theo makes a good living and works hard—or so it seems. Later, Boris returns and stuns Theo with a confession that sends the novel into its final pages.

The story of Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son is one that is more focused. Johnson’s story is told in two parts. The first section introduces readers to Jun Do. We learn about his upbringing in an orphanage and of his various jobs—the most notable is that of a kidnapper. Jun Do makes it out of the country and travels to America, but things don’t go that well for him. For punishment, Jun Do gets taken back to North Korea and shoved inside a prison cell. The second part of The Orphan Master’s Son is truly a story of love—both of self and for another. Sun Moon, a famous actress and possible romantic interest, enters the story. After some additional developments, North Korea and America have issues, and Jun Do is in the middle of it all.

Both novels have strong core stories. The plots are detailed, engaging from beginning to end. The Orphan Master’s Son made me think. Well, it made me think a lot. It’s unarguably a good story. There is a great story in this round, though. I woke up and fell asleep wondering what would happen to Theo and his friends. My heart couldn’t get enough of The Goldfinch.

Winner of the Round: The Goldfinch


Round 2 (The Characters):

Tartt and Johnson populate their worlds with real and relatable characters. Some of them are disgusting and awful, but they are, nevertheless, believable. Throw all of that aside for now. For this round, I’m removing all of the supporting players and only choosing between our two protagonists.

Theo Decker (The Goldfinch): Oh, Theo. You are troubled. At first, I felt bad for you. I mean, your mother was murdered in an art exhibit explosion. Your dad was absent. You were a kid without a family. You had no home. Then, a seemingly great family takes you in. The future looked bright. Then, you, dude, messed it all up. You looked to the wrong crowd for advice. You turned to drugs. You weren’t loyal to one of the coolest old guys ever. You were kind of mean. I forgive you, Theo. You have a good story, and you are an underdog—I can’t help but root for you.

Pak Jun Do (The Orphan Master’s Son): Jun Do, or should I say “John Doe,” you are a strong person. Most of us gain our first real taste of identity by our name. You didn’t get that when you were born. You were just a number to a group of uncaring people. More than Theo, you were a real orphan. You had a tough life, too. Very tough. You didn’t get to go art galleries when you were a kid. Like Theo, you did some bad things, but you really had to for your survival. I respect you, and that’s more than I can say about Theo.

Winner of the Round: The Orphan Master’s Son


Round 3 (The Cover):

It’s a little taboo to admit, I suppose. I’m not afraid to say that I do it everyday. I’m guessing that many of you do, too. I judge a book by what it looks like. Cool, clean fonts are always good. Appropriate spacing is best. Simple designs are attractive. Let’s take a look at our covers:

The Goldfinch has an acceptable cover. I genuinely like it. It’s mostly white, with a tiny goldfinch. The coloring looks good. The type is nice. Hmm… Okay. I’d buy it. Well, I already did buy it.

The Orphan Master’s Son has a good look to it, too. The font is cool. I especially like the bold letters. Like Tartt’s novel, it looks mostly white, and there is an animal on it. Is that a tiger? I wonder what that tiger symbolizes? I like tigers. An orange tiger sitting on a nearby bookshelf sounds like something I’d like. Okay, I bought this one, too.

Winner of the Round: The Orphan Master’s Son


Round 4 (Most Fun):

  • Setting: America or North Korea—I vote America for the place that likely has the most possibilities for fun. Theo gets to go to New York. He gets to have a pet following him around. He gets to really do whatever he wants. Jun Do doesn’t. I give the setting advantage to The Goldfinch.
  • Lifestyle: Rich or poor—I say that being Theo-rich is likely the easiest route to having the most fun. He can sell a painting if he needs the cash. Jun Do can’t really do that. Again, I’m giving this one to The Goldfinch.
  • Hobbies: Kidnapping people or stealing art and making fake antique furniture—this one is a little tough. Neither sound like something I’d really be into taking up on the weekends. I’ll call it a draw.

This is an easy round to call. While The Orphan Master’s Son has moments that make us chuckle, it can’t compare to the adolescent mischief in The Goldfinch.

Winner of the Round: The Goldfinch


Round 5 (Literary Merit):

It’s rather obvious that both books possess a certain caliber of literary merit. They are, after all, Pulitzer winners. Which one stands as the tallest on the mountain of literature? Let’s see:

Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.

The Goldfinch: Donna Tartt covers the gamut of classic literary themes in The Goldfinch. Theo, when we first meet him, is just a boy. His mother dies in a terrible explosion. At such a young age, he has to uncover how to survive. He must deal with loneliness. Soon after, when he lives with a rich family, he realizes that social classes exists. Then, as he gets older, he has to try to figure out his identity. He must wage an inner war between good and evil, right and wrong, and hope and despair. On top of all of these ideas that Tartt presents to us, she delivers a classic coming-of-age tale of a boy becoming a man.

Where we are from, he said, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change….But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.

The Orphan Master’s Son: Adam Johnson’s novel also strikes some major notes. Johnson beautifully presents Jun Do’s isolation throughout The Orphan Master’s Son. He’s not just alone as an orphan—he doesn’t truly even have a home country. His journey is to find a place that accepts him and also a place that he can call his own. Propaganda and lies permeate the pages. Love and innocence appear, too. Johnson successfully weaves it all together to create a tightly-constructed classic.

Choosing the most literary of the two is the toughest choice I’ve made all battle. The Orphan Master’s Son is beautiful. It’s strong. It’s even funny. The Goldfinch, though, is a full life. It’s not perfect. It has moments that aren’t so pretty, but the high notes truly sing. Tartt captures the full spectrum of what it means to be alive—and to fight to stay that way. Her style is classic, and that’s the kind of literature that has the most weight in my book.

Winner of the Round: The Goldfinch


Final Verdict: The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.”-Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
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Bradley Sides

Bradley Sides is a graduate of the M. A. in English program from the University of North Alabama. His fiction appears in Belle Rêve Literary Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, Freedom Fiction Journal, Inwood Indiana, and Used Gravitrons. He is a contributor to Bookkaholic. He resides in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is actively seeking representation for his debut middle-grade novel.