Donna Tartt’s Masterpiece Helped Me Through Grief
I spent most of the month of August in Phoenix, taking care of my ailing father, and I needed something to read. What had started as a three-day trip turned into three weeks. My wife took home the library books that I’d brought with me. If I’d kept them, I would have racked up fines. Library books are free. That’s the point of them. I refuse to pay fines to the government for books. Therefore, I’m a hero.
But it did leave a gap in my extended amount of fallow time where Dad was napping, watching Fox News, watching the local news, or watching Bull. Dad doesn’t read. He has two Daniel Silva novels on the shelf, which he spends five seconds with before falling asleep. So he wasn’t any help when it came to reading material. Any residual books on the shelf that my mother had owned either went straight into the recycling, or straight to Half Price Books to be converted into spending cash. Money was tight. I didn’t want to buy anything, not even at half price.
Then one night, cleaning out drawers, I found my late mother’s Kindle Paperwhite. She’d been dead for a year and a half, but this had clearly gone untouched, and uncharged, since then. Mom was one of the few people I knew who actually read for quality and by volume. “She had pretty damn good taste in books,” my sister said. I always treasured talking to her about what she was reading. So I charged up the Kindle to see if she had any parting gifts for me.
The selections bounded all over the place. Something called The Teacher’s Billionaire was an automatic no, as was Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, who I guess is still going. I’d already read The Flamethrowers, The Middlesteins, Gone Girl, and The Interestings. Something called The End Of Your Life Book Club, a memoir about a mom and son exchanging notes on books they were reading, seemed a little too on-the-nose and also envy-inspiring. My mom died overnight. The virus struck, sucked her away into a husk, and she was dead. We didn’t have a chance for a tender literary goodbye.
I kept looking. The Junot Diaz was only a problematic sample and I didn’t really feel like reading The Book Thief. While it touched my heart that mom had two novels that I’d written on her Kindle, I wasn’t going to read myself for escape. This left Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, which would have been OK in a pinch, and a few other books with titles like The Gravity Of Birds and Summer In Napa.
There could only be one winner. I decided, at last, to read The Goldfinch. There it sat on the Kindle, the ebook file to crush all ebook files. My wife had read it years before. It had been sitting on my own Kindle, waiting to be taken out of storage, like The Goldfinch itself, one of those books that you always mean to read but never get around to because it seems like work and because there’s so much on TV. But I had three weeks and a lot of dead hours. What would mom have done in that situation? She would have read The Goldfinch. And probably ten other books.
It took me all three weeks, plus another month, to finish The Goldfinch. I can add few superlatives to it that haven’t already been bestowed upon its greatness. There are good books, there are great books, and then there’s The Goldfinch.
No book written in the last 20 years can rival The Goldfinch for its epic scope, its vividly-described characters, its ridiculously-detailed research, and its pure intensity of emotion. Not only does it have an intensely-gripping and action-packed plot, it’s also a searing portrait of how addiction masks trauma and destroys lives, a damning indictment of Las Vegas, and an encomium to the enduring value of art. Plus, it features one of the funniest and best-realized dogs in literary history. Some books live with you forever. The Goldfinch feels that way to me, and to many others. Its reputation will only increase when the Goldfinch movie, which is already looking very promising, comes out next year.
The Goldfinch is the closest thing to Dickensian fiction we have in modern times, but Donna Tartt is far from Dickens, who pulped out chapters daily to pay his immense bills and feed his immense popularity. How does she do it? While most writers spend their days flogging themselves on Instagram, she lives in obscurity, only to emerge once a decade like some sort of rare flower, interesting masterpiece in hand. As someone who’s been chained to the daily hack’s grind for a quarter-century, I admire and envy her situation, her commitment to privacy, and her commitment to craft.
You’ll rarely encounter a more finely-crafted and deeply-felt novel than The Goldfinch. Maybe the book contains about 25 pages too much expository dialogue. You could argue that the last eighth or so, where Theo, the protagonist, has a fevered dream in a luxury Amsterdam hotel room while the real action happens offstage, loses focus a little to internal monologue. Maybe there’s a bit too much furniture-restoration talk. But that pales compared with The Goldfinch’s massive scope, boundless ambition, constant and real-seeming drug talk, and deep reservoirs of emotional realism.
Mostly, though, this is a book about a boy trying to get over his mother’s death. It came at the right time for me. It’s one of the most profound studies of grief I’ve ever read. In Tartt’s hands, grief doesn’t come out as something quiet or subtle. Theo’s response to his mother’s crazy and violent demise is equally crazy and violent.
When my mother died, I didn’t steal a priceless work of art, but I did go on an insane drug-and-gambling binge, almost destroying my career, my friendships, and my family. Somehow, I pulled, and am still pulling, myself out of that spiral. Reading this book helped, and reading it on my late mother’s Kindle helped even more, like she left it there just for me, to get me through her horrible, sad, and sudden end. While I may never completely get over mom’s death, Tartt’s masterwork helped me feel like I’m not alone in a world gone mad.
With that, I can retire my mom’s Kindle.
I wonder what she thought of The Goldfinch.
I wish she were around, so she could tell me.