My favorite books - the ones that get shelved in the permanent section of my mental writing library - are the ones that make me feel hopelessly, overwhelmingly like a hack. The ones that inspire me to say, "When I grow up, I want to write like this." The ones that make me want to drag everything I've ever written out into the yard and light it all on fire, lest it have a chance to offend anyone's poor eyeballs ever again.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is one such book.
Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me what we can speak to each other across time.
It was described to me as Dickensian, and that's definitely true, both in the plushness of the narration, and the tragic/poetic journey undertaken by our young protagonist. And also Boris - my favorite character of the book, our modern incarnation of Dodger from Oliver Twist.
I won't spoil any of the plot, because it deserves to unfold without preconceived ideas. But I will say that it contains all of the things I hope (in my wildest dreams) most to achieve in my own writing someday:
- A sense of being present in the narrative, grounded in the setting and all its rich trappings, caught up in the hero's thoughts, so engrossed that, no matter what's occurring on the page, you can't bear to walk away from it. I spent a considerable portion of my reading time last night with a hand over my mouth, breathing through it, gasping.
- A sense of the epic - the weight and importance of the world, revolving slowly, dragging you along on grand adventures that take time to unfold properly.
- A sense of realism, down to flop sweats and fever dreams, shaving nicks and bad pub food.
- And an attachment to the characters, for better or worse, captivated by their stories, gestures, bits of wisdom.
You can talk about "tricks of the trade" all day, but really great books have that unteachable something special. They have "it," and this book certainly does.
For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time - so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.