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.