Category Archives: donna tartt

It’s worth it to read the hell out of The Goldfinch.

goldfinch

And though it’s only May, I can easily say this has been my favorite reading experience of the year.  There are a few reasons for this, I think.  One, taking the time to soak up a book as a work of art changes the reading experience.  Knowing I was going to a book club meeting made me want to be sure I thought about what Tartt was up to as an artist.  Then, talking about the story in the backyard of a neighborhood cafe was an incredible time of hearing other perspectives and ideas.  I did a lot of underlining throughout the story, and then a friend read  her favorite passage aloud and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t marked in my copy (page 603 if you’re curious).  I’ve gone back to read that section multiple times since.

Knowing I wanted to share this process with my students–that there are real readers out there who study books for fun–also motivated me to basically read the hell out of this book.  This kind of thinking is rewarded by Tartt.  Though one could move through the book and be pulled by the plot, there are so many threads to unravel and questions to consider that by the end I felt as though I had a thoroughly philosophical experience. Not to mention that her writing is gorgeous.  The main threads I followed as a reader were Theo’s (the main character) development as a person, how the loss of his mother impacts the trajectory of his life, the role of chance and meaning in our stories as humans, restoration and hope, and of course, art.

(Though I won’t go into specifics beyond the basic plot, if you are hoping to pick this one up and want to go into it as a blank slate, I wouldn’t read any further.)

The reader learns in the opening pages of the story, from Theo’s present-day adult narration, that he lost his mother in a random accident when he was thirteen.  In his present day he had dreamed of her, and then takes the reader back to his 13 year old self and through the rest of the book, we watch him grow up.  On page seven he says, “When I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier…Her death was the dividing mark…I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.”  Much of the book is Theo trying to walk through his adolescent and young adult life without clear direction.  Readers can ponder alongside: what anchors us as people?  How do we recover from various kinds of loss? What enables us to survive, endure, find peace?

The narrative sounds like him finally able to think through the course of his life in order to seek out meaning, which felt like one of the weightier issues for me as a person: freedom comes from reflection (and reflection can come in many forms).  Half way through the story Theo says, “It was years since I’d roused myself from my stupor of misery and self absorption; between anomie and trance, inertia and parenthesis and gnawing my own heart out, there were a lot of small, easy, everyday kindnesses I’d missed out on” (470).  I think and write about this often: how it is easy to mechanically go through the motions of daily life and to hold what we most need to work through either at arm’s length so that it never intersects with our thought patterns, or tucked so deep inside ourselves for so long that to unearth it feels much too difficult.  And so we move through life in a petrified state, in both the figurative and scientific state: we become scared and so we change to stone.

To say any more at this point would take away from your discovery through Theo’s journey,  so I’ll conclude with this: toward the end he says “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair” (771).  This, I believe is the key to enables us to feel truly alive.  And this is what we must work toward, each in our own way.

Teen decisions: passion, idiocy, or both? Or, Character Analysis and the Prefrontal Cortex.

One of the things I’m most interested in thinking about right now is the human brain during teenage years and the early twenties.  I just completed a project for graduate school about social emotional learning and development and was amazed by all adults can do to enrich and equip the emotional health of teenagers.  Working with young people who are crossing over the bridge in development where their ability to comprehend language and speech is mostly complete into frontal lobe development is a fascinating, though sometimes exhausting, place to spend my working hours. According to Psychology Today “Fifteen-year-olds have not yet fully developed the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly. They have difficulty with planning and organization, and learning from their mistakes. They often act impulsively or inappropriately, they have roller-coaster emotions, and working towards distant goals rather than being unduly influenced by immediate rewards is a stretch for them…The brain evolved in this way for a good reason. Teenagers need to take risks in order to make the leap from home and reliance on parents to independence.”

Not only is this directly tied to my profession, but it has become a fascinating topic of conversation with my friends and peers in recent years as we think back and study patterns, passions, and behaviors of our own teenage years and early twenties.  For most of us, it was a time of great desire to connect with something, though the means to attain the nondescript something may have varied under the large umbrella of simply wanting to feel alive: music, faith, the outdoors, literature, sports, theater, justice.  We took risks of all kinds in order These roots remain in each of us still, and yet the highs and the depths we felt seem like distant acquaintances, or as though they have gone through a strainer of life experience, wisdom, and perspective.  My thoughts are ongoing.

Overlapping these trains of thought was my reading of The Secret History by Donna Tartt over the past few weeks.  It was published in 1992 and unbeknownst to me, a cult classic, especially among people who were teenagers or college students when it came out.  It is the story of a tightly knit group of friends at a small, private college in Hampshire.  They are privileged, passionate classics majors who shun the traditional college scene for lives steeped in nostalgia for ages past and a devotion to their father figure professor Julian.  The narrator Richard, speaking many years removed, reveals how he providentially obtained a scholarship, left home, shamelessly lied about his past and became a part of this group of friends. He opens the story confessing to the group murder of one of its own that occurred not long after he learns of the dark place their thirst for something more took them.

After doing some research I learned Tartt called it not a whodunit, but a “whydunit”: the reader knows immediately where the book is headed (with a twist or two) and along the way is able to watch the motivation, justification, and aftermath.  This book was one of those long ones that is fun to sink into–the kind where I can’t just pick up another book after completing it because I’m not ready to completely leave it behind.

What I’ve been left with as I consider  the book is a bit of character analysis through the lens of the prefrontal cortex, though I will only provide the questions as I don’t want to give the story away.  I love the line with which Julian opened their classes: “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” It brought me back to my own teenage years which were ripe with the longing for something bigger, for meaning, for something to get lost in.  But, what did this invitation into the sublime do for these characters in particular? What does the sublime offer us as adolescents? As adults? What do we lose and gain as we develop?