It took me six weeks – six weeks, people – to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and along the way I heard all manner of stories from people who began, but could not complete, this book. The first person who started off with good intentions gone quickly south was my father, who for all intents and purposes didn’t even start the book. He ordered it from his local bookstore because it was selected by his book club but because of, I don’t know, backlog and slow delivery and the fact he lives in small-town northern Michigan, he didn’t receive it in time for his book club. He went to the meeting anyway, and all the people that annoy him loved it while one of the men he most respects slammed the book down and said “I do not understand why we are expected to care for or in any way be interested in this self-indulgent, whiny narrator.” That was enough for my dad, who I regularly accuse of having a terrible prejudice against women authors to begin with, to pass up the book entirely and guiltlessly return to, I don’t know, more Cormac McCarthy, probably.
Then one of my co-workers saw it in my computer bag. I have since learned from her that she is the type of person who generally prefers happy television and happy books, so her comment that she stopped reading The Goldfinch once the main character became “sort of a bad kid” didn’t hold too much weight with me – I’ve indulged in way too much Stephen King and Peter Straub to stop reading because of a flawed character.
Yet another co-worker told me he stopped reading it because “of all the art history” and, after finishing the book, I can see how at least a fleeting interest in art and art history would be necessary in order to be engaged by the story. It’s no secret that Suri Hustvedt is one of my favorite authors – it might be more of a surprise that I fell in love with art history in one of my college humanities courses and have indulged my passion for it here and there ever since.
All of which is to say, I brought a lot of other people’s baggage to this book, but am I ever glad I kept on reading. This is one of the most remarkable, beautiful books I’ve ever read, so much so that as I neared the end I made sure to complete the book when I wasn’t too tired so I could absorb every word. This is a book that makes an argument – and argument for art and artists and acceptance of the differences between each and every one of us. This is a book where you meet terribly, terribly flawed people who have all managed to survive – terror attacks, horrifying families, lost loves, and a deeply cruel world. They’ve managed to survive through various coping mechanisms (the only way I can think to describe it although “coping mechanism” feels too light-hearted) – drugs, alcohol, sex – art, antiques, unrequited love – and while they don’t necessarily do so easily or gracefully, they make it – they make it through.
There are so many ways to talk about this book – through its carefully constructed plot, through its characters, through the city of New York, through the art – and it’s been out for a while so I’m not terribly concerned with spoiling the plot for anyone, but given the way I entered this particular reading experience I have decided, instead, to talk about what you need to bring to the reading of this book. So, first of all, like most great reading experiences, you need to bring a healthy dose of what if to this book. What if a boy and his mother were one day wandering through the museum of modern art and a bomb exploded and then that boy through an incredible series of events survived and inadvertently – yes, truly – stole a world famous painting. What if? This needs to be plausible for you, otherwise you’ll never complete the book (for it is long, yo).
A boy goes on an adventure. What if.
I also think you need to bring at least a glancing compassion for, if not direct knowledge of, addiction. Almost every character in the book either battles with or welcomes at least one (but most often multiple) addictions – and I think it’s the spiraling out of controlledness that these addictions lend to the story that turned off readers like my colleague and my father’s book club member.
Finally, if you aren’t an art history buff, I do think you have to have a love of literature or film or theater or ballet or even baseball – something that stands the test of time. For me, the most powerful argument the book made was about the conversations that happen over the course of centuries, how art communicates with its audience through the passage of time. I’m not an art expert, but literature and the theater have always spoken to me in this way, and there have been times in my life where returning to Pride and Prejudice or a production of “The Cherry Tree” has felt lifesaving. It might sound like hyperbole, but that is how it feels.
This is a stunning book – read it.