Quotes & Notes: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

the goldfinch

Quotes: 

The other section of Honors English was reading Great Expectations. Mine was reading Walden; and I hid myself in the coolness and silence of the book, a refuge from the sheet-metal glare of the desert. During the morning break (where we were rounded up and made to go outside, in a chain-fenced yard near the vending machines), I stood in the shadiest corner I could find with my mass-market paperback and, with a red pencil, went through and underlined a lot of particularly bracing sentences: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” What would Thoreau have made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams, its projections and hollow facades? (234)

I was too disoriented by my surroundings to listen very closely and with almost painfully heightened senses I stirred at the potato mess with my fork and felt the strangeness of the city pressing in all around me, smells of tobacco and malt and nutmeg, cafe walls the melancholy brown of an old leather-bound book and then beyond, dark passages and brackish water lapping, low skies and old buildings all leaning against each other with a moody poetic, edge-of-destruction feel, the cobblestoned loneliness of a city that felt – to me, anyway – like a place where you might come to let the water close over your head. (649)

Notes: 

If I had to tell you in just a few words what The Goldfinch is about, I would say it is about grief and guilt. It’s about all the ways we punish ourselves  because we think we deserve it.

It was difficult not to compare The Goldfinch to The Secret History and I have a general question about both:

  • Do people really talk that way? Or do Theo and Richard from The Secret History just wish they do? Both are people who come from humble beginnings and find themselves thrown into a group of wealthier people and everyone seems to talk with this almost  caricature intonation of what I imagine wealthy people sound like. Is that intentional on Donna Tartt’s part?

Theo was a very frustrating narrator. Not in a bad way, I think it was very intentional. Theo feels very real to me in a way that Richard did not.

I was talking to a friend at work about Donna Tartt’s two books and I feel like they are always presented as being big and important and inaccessible when really they are long, plot-driven books about all the different ways a perfectly normal person’s life can be derailed until it is unrecognizable through a mix of fate and their own choices. I don’t think the cover of The Secret History really does it any favors in terms of changing this reputation. I do love the packaging of The Goldfinch. It’s a beautifully designed book.

The Goldfinch is a good book, but I just liked The Secret History more. The first two sections of The Goldfinch are amazing and I’d like to go through and reread the first one again. I often feel this way, because I don’t really get into the swing of a book until I’m about a third of the way in and I always wonder what I missed in the beginning. I wish I had quoted something from the first section.

It looks as though the actual painting The Goldfinch is in The Frick? I think I’ll go see it.

So how were those creepy reads? Part 1

Even though I didn’t officially participate in RIP this year, I decided to only read creepy things in October: thrillers and horror and post-apocalyptic wastelands and psychological page-turners! I think I succeeded. I didn’t necessarily love everything I read, but I’m very glad I read it all.

creepy books part 1

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I have been meaning to read this forever. My friend at work and I have a “book club of two” where we read the same book and text each other during the process. It’s a lot of fun and it all started when we happened to read The Rules of Civility at the same time. We both loved it. Unfortunately, all of our other books have been… well, let’s just say not our favorites since then. Rebecca, though, was a book I have such conflicted feelings about! There were parts I absolutely loved, but there is also a big part of me that hated a lot of it. I felt a little cheated by the ending and I just wanted something more. Also, I thought there were ghosts? I kept waiting for the ghosts to show up.

I tweeted this and Chris had a great response: “But there are ghosts of the past!” Too true, Chris.

Creepiness factor out of 10: 5. There were some really creepy parts of this! Especially since you don’t really understand what’s going on for most of the story. Mrs. Danvers scores at least an 8.

The Outside by Laura Bickle – I talk a lot about Laura Bickle’s Amish vampire saga, because it seems like such a mash up of popular fiction tropes, but seriously, it works. Don’t go into expecting the most amazing writing you’ve ever read, but it is dark and gritty and an interesting addition to the vampire story. The main character is Amish and her world is upended when a vampirism epidemic strikes. I don’t want to give away too much, but her Amish upbringing is a HUGE part of the plot. There are some character inconsistencies throughout the story and it’s not perfectly polished, but it’s totally worth the read. There are a lot of interesting discussions of religion in here. I have no idea how accurate Bickle’s portrayal of the Amish culture is, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Creepiness factor: 6. The vampires in the first book were terrifying and they don’t have as much of a roll in this one, but there’s a lot of meditation on loneliness and doing what is right, even if it is hard. It is certainly creepy to think about. 

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers – I got this book from Book Smuggler Thea and she promised that it was an antidote to my dissatisfaction with The Age of Miracles. And it was, in a lot of ways, and then I had my own problems with it as it went along. In this story, there is a mysterious illness that begins killing pregnant mothers before they can give birth. All women are given an implant that prevents them from becoming pregnant and everyone is sure that it is the end of humanity. Except, there might be a way to save the world. It only requires the sacrifice of willing young women who will give up their lives to save their unborn children. The main character, Jessie Lamb, is thrown into the middle of the debate about what to do and whether it is right. While the symbolism was a little bit obvious, I liked that there was a bit more action in this one, but the narrative felt similarly removed. I wasn’t experiencing anything that was happening as it was happening. I wonder if this is a bigger problem I have with diary or epistolary novels. Which is funny, because I’m trying to write one. What if I end up hating my own story? Sorry this mini review divulged into personal writing anxiety.

Creepiness factor: 4. This book was definitely bleak, but I don’t know if it was really creepy. 

The Resurrectionist by EB Hudpeth – I really admire Quirk Books for the risks they’re willing to take on narrative structure. This book starts out with a fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black, a late 19th century doctor who begins out as a promising physician but who eventually descends into madness. He believes that physical deformities are proof that creatures like the sphinx and the harpy once truly existed. The deformities are memories. The second half of the book are his anatomically “correct” drawings of the mystical creatures as he believed them to exist. Again, I felt too removed from the story. I think I would have liked this a lot better if instead of a fictional biography it was actually just a novel. It wasn’t quite compelling enough. That said, the story was so creepy and weird, and the drawings were really interesting.

Creepiness factor: 9There were some truly horrifying, stomach-turning scenes in this fictional biography. 

I started out making this one post, but it just got too long, so you will have to wait until tomorrow for part two!

Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen

9780307955654Full Body Burden is a story of secrets: the secrets kept within families and the secrets a government keeps from its people. The toll can be the same, it’s only the scale that’s different. Iversen’s father was an alcoholic and it was simply something that the family did not talk about, though they all suffered from the consequences. Nearby to the family home was Rocky Flats, a plant that developed plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs during the war. Despite being reassured of the safety of the plant, environmental and health problems plagued the community for years and all the residents were directly affected or knew someone who was.

The dual narrative structure, intertwining the construction, development, and operation of Rocky Flats with the story of Iversen’s family, was both Full Body Burden’s strength and its weakness. Iversen says that she cannot tell one story without the other. In her mind, the connection between Rocky Flats and her family’s slow disintegration are connected. I think this connection can be tenuous for readers and I was often pulled out of the narrative when it would switch between them. There wasn’t a clear flow between the two and I often wasn’t quite sure why Iversen decided to tell the stories together.

But it does help us understand Iversen and why she cares about the Flats, apart from being close by. This notion of secrets, of keeping deadly information from people, is one that exists in the community of Rocky Flats and in Iversen’s own home growing up. As a child, her father is driving drunk and they crash. She is seriously injured, but never taken to the hospital. As a result, she has neck problems for the rest of her life. Similarly, her family is constantly sick and weak, presumably because of their exposure to radiation by Rocky Flats. In that sense, the stories are parallel. Iversen and her family are damaged by both.

This is a somewhat shocking book to read if you don’t know anything about nuclear facilities in the US, which I did not. It makes you wonder what other things are being kept from ordinary citizens in the name of security. So much damage was done to the community and the surrounding area that only time, more time than we probably have, will fix. This book felt impeccably researched and there are pages and pages of notes, but comments (I know, don’t read the comments, but sometimes I can’t help it) on Full Body Burden‘s Amazon page are full of people saying that Iversen doesn’t know what she’s talking about and that there aren’t really any problems associated with Rocky Flats. It’s amazing that in the face of all that evidence there are still people saying that there is nothing wrong. That’s why books like these are so very important.

I received a copy of Full Body Burden from the publisher.

The Exiles by Allison Lynn

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The Exiles follows a plot structure that I’ve read before: young New York family, tired of living in the city, seeks greener pastures in a small town, only to have something horrible befall them in the small town. Through this horrible thing, they realize that New York might not have been the cause of all their problems. Nate and Emily have plenty of problems. Nate is estranged from his father, his only living relative, and his family history is full of tragedy. His relationship with Emily was a bright spot in his life, including the birth of their son, but the past few months he has been keeping something terrible from Emily and it directly affects their son. He doesn’t know how to come clean, so he’s been suffering from anxiety ever since his son’s birth. Emily is also keeping secrets from her husband and both are unsure how to bring these secrets out in the open.

In an effort to get rid of the biggest anxiety in their life, their financial problems, Emily and Nate decide to move to a small Rhode Island town, where they will start over. They will be able to afford a savings account, a house, everything. When they go to pick up the keys from their real estate agent, their car full with all their worldly possessions is stolen. Nate and Emily must navigate the holiday weekend with less than $100 and nothing but what they were carrying when the car was stolen.

The stolen car is only a catalyst. It gets Nate and Emily to share a hotel room for the weekend, three claustrophobic days where all of their secrets must eventually come to light. This is a story about people who make awful decisions for reasons they don’t understand. The characters can’t see how they got from point A to point B, how they went from a sane, normal person to making rash decisions that affect everyone around them.

I liked a lot of things about The Exiles. Nate and Emily, though you might not necessarily like them, are characters you sympathize with. They’ve simply been overwhelmed by life. They think it is New York that has changed them, has made them unable to live life as they should, but they did it to themselves.

The Exiles is a farce in the sense that the situations are all extreme: Nate’s secret, Emily’s secret, the stolen car, the unlikely appearance of a few characters that’s uncannily timed, the complete lack of consequences for anyone’s actions. So if The Exiles is a farce, what exactly is it exposing as ridiculous? The middle class aspirations of the 90s and early 2000s? We know that life for Nate and Emily is only going to get worse. They have no savings and the economy is about to come crashing down around them. The audience knows this, Nate and Emily even casually mention how much trouble they’d be in if anything went south. Perhaps it’s the idea of a perfect life: the small town, the nuclear family, the perfect cookie cutter house. It’s the American dream and it’s not going to make Nate and Emily happy. Only they can do that.

In the end, I guess I’m not sure what the point is, but I’m also not sure how much it matters. I liked The Exiles especially once I realized that nothing was quite as it seemed. If you only like your protagonists likeable, I’m sure you’ll dislike The Exiles. But if you like books where the morals are a little bit grayer and the outcomes a little bit less defined and clear, you’ll fall for this one just like I did, even though I wasn’t expecting to.

I received this book as a part of the TLC Book Tour. You can read more about this tour, including other stops on the tour, here.

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

A-Dual-Inheritance-coverA Dual Inheritance has been billed as a novel for “readers of Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot.” This intrigued me, because I adored Rules of Civility and I really disliked The Marriage Plot, but in general like the idea of novels that follow a small group of people over a length of time and that’s what A Dual Inheritance does. Ed and Hugh meet at Harvard, and despite their different backgrounds (Ed is Jewish and from a poor family, Hugh comes from a wealthy family), they become great friends. Helen, Hugh’s high school sweetheart, doesn’t immediately like Ed, but eventually she warms up to his eccentricities. Ed and Hugh disagree about almost everything, but it doesn’t stop their friendship, so when Ed abruptly ends their friendship over a political disagreement, Hugh is confused but doesn’t fight it. Only that’s not why Ed ends their relationship. He did something horrible and he can no longer face his friends.

I really enjoy novels that are told in the style of A Dual Inheritance, sweeping, with time passing quickly so we see the characters at all stages of their lives. We know the mistakes of their past and at the end a small glimpse into their futures, but most of the drama has been played out. The story is complete in a way and that’s very satisfying.

A Dual Inheritance is a novel about the things that we inherit, whether it is material or not. It’s also about the way the mistakes we make, or the choices we make, affect our lives in large and small ways, to the point where they are inherited by our children. Maybe the mistake has taken a different shape by the time the character sees its effect on their child, but there it is. Ed’s father was not a wealthy man and in his old age he was bitter about a promising boxing career that wasn’t and the downturn of his neighborhood. Ed becomes obsessed with money and inheritance and business, precisely because it was the polar opposite of what he grew up with. Hugh, who grew up with money, disregards it completely, devoting his life to building clinics in third world countries.

This is not a complaint, so much as an observation. Everything in this novel is the extreme. Ed is so focused on money. Hugh is so against it. There are coincidences that are almost unbelievable. These are things that would normally bother me, but the characters and the writing kept me enthralled and engaged. There is one scene that felt so real, a pivotal moment for Ed’s daughter Rebecca, and I imagine when the rest of the details have faded from this novel, I will always remember that one scene.

I sometimes felt detached from the characters while reading A Dual Inheritance, which is partially because of the narration style. While the story is narrated in the third person omniscient, it hyper-focuses on certain characters throughout the story, while leaving others strangely distant. Ed and Hugh are the center of the novel, but this is really a story about Ed with some brief breaks to visit Hugh and his family. The character, though, that I felt entirely detached from was Helen. She becomes almost mythical, because she is so rarely present, but constantly talked about. In a way I think this is intentional, but I wanted to get to know her a little bit better. To know what she was really thinking.

I guess I agree with the comparison above. In a lot of ways this does feel like something in between Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot, but I don’t think it has quite the same level of character development or clarity of writing that either of those novels possess. Perhaps in bursts, in specific scenes, but as a whole I’m afraid this novel might be more forgettable than either of those.

But still, Chapter Fifteen? I’ll remember that forever.

This review is a part of a TLC Book Tour for A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon. I received a free copy of this book as a part of the tour. You can read more about this tour, including other stops on the tour, here

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

flight behaviorThis is one of those posts that just won’t write itself. I keep getting bogged down in the plot summary, when really all I want to do is post my favorite quotes from this novel and let you decide. It’s pretty, and I truly enjoyed reading about the characters, but it is flawed.

It is a novel about global warming and it is not subtle about it. Sometimes the story is sacrificed to get that message across. Lengthy discussions of global warming and what it means and how hopeless it is. Things that aren’t untrue, but perhaps could have been more artistically woven into the story.

But it’s also a novel about a marriage and a mother and a friendship and a mother-in-law. And in those moments, it’s lovely. Now, for the quotes:

They faced each other, a towering, morose man and his small, miserable wife, both near tears. How could two people both lose an argument? (174)

My favorite quotes are ones that express something you’ve seen but never known how to describe.

She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being held captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater. (239)

It was hard to feel the remotest sympathy for any of the fools she had been. As opposed to the fool she was probably being now. 394

In one transcendent moment buoyed by two ounces of Riesling she saw the pointlessness of clinging to that life raft, that hooray-we-are-saved conviction of having already come through the stupid parts, to arrive at the current enlightenment. The hard part is letting go, she could see that. There is no life raft; you’re just freaking swimming all the time. (394)

I feel like the quotes I picked aren’t even particularly beautiful. They are just ones that I liked. If blog posts are supposed to recommend a book or not, I’m not sure I could tell you one way or the other. You might be put off by the constant reminder that this is a novel with an issue at its heart instead of a plot. Or maybe you’ll get something out of this book, like I did, even if it’s only a few quotes and a pleasant reading experience.

The First Warm Evening of the Year by Jamie M. Saul

The First Warm Evening of the YearEvery year, around this time, I’m drawn to books with titles and covers like The First Warm Evening of the Year. I always think that a story set in early summer is just what I need to get me through these last few weeks of winter. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite found the perfect book for this time of year and The First Warm Evening of the Year wasn’t the book I was expecting.

I should start off by saying that I could not finish The First Warm Evening of the Year. I give books, especially ones I’m reading for a tour like this one, a fair chance. I read 100 pages of this book and tried to get into the story and enjoy it, but I just couldn’t. I found the story to be unbelievable and the writing lacking, despite some wonderful descriptions and intrigue.

Geoffrey is a voice over actor who is surprised to find that he has been made the executor of his estranged best friend’s estate. They lost touch after she moved to Paris with her husband, but he graciously accepts the job and while going through Laura’s things he meets her good friend Marian. Marian is still in love with her husband, who died suddenly ten years ago, but has been in a long-term relationship. Geoffrey can’t stop thinking about Marian and the life Laura left behind.

When Geoffrey meets Laura, their conversation is intense, but when he starts talking about being passionately in love with her I was suddenly confused. He loves her? He only talked to her for a few minutes! I guess it was just so abrupt and bizarre. I thought this was going to be a meditative novel on grief, but it suddenly turned into the story of a man who pursues a woman who has expressly stated that she is totally uninterested in him.

I knew that there was a romance portion to the novel, but I wasn’t expecting it to take front and center and so quickly. While I was somewhat interested in seeing how their romance eventually played out, it also made me a little bit uncomfortable. Marian is a woman who is dealing with a lot of grief. After knowing her for approximately a week, Geoffrey goes to her house and tells her that a) he is in love with her, b) her long-term boyfriend is in love with her, but she will never be in love with him and c) they were meant to be together. I’m sorry, but if someone told me that after knowing me for a week? I would run in the other direction.

Apart from the romance being unbelievable, the first person narrative with long chunks of dialogue frustrated me. There are monologues that are two pages long in some cases and conversations that are nothing but sentence after sentence of dialogue for pages. I don’t expect written language to do anything but resemble speech, but I don’t want to be completely taken out of the story every time I read a conversation in the novel because it seems impossible.

There were moments that made me want to keep reading. Marian is a gardener and there is a scene where she describes the early summer garden to Geoffrey. I loved the descriptions and how passionate Marian was about her craft. I’m starved for spring and this was a perfect escape from the cold winter weather outside. I was also intrigued by how the story would play out, but unfortunately, not enough to overcome the negatives.

I wasn’t the reader for The First Warm Evening of the Year, but I know that what might be a deal breaker for me would be a mild annoyance to another reader. If you can suspend your disbelief about the romance, I think you might be very intrigued by the plot of The First Warm Evening of the Year and enjoy some wonderful descriptions of New York at spring time.

I received a copy of The First Warm Evening of the Year for review from TLC Book Tours. You can learn more about this tour, including other tour stops, here