The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky--so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime. 


Just about every review I've read for this book has commented on its length. Some people think the story could have been told in less words; some people don't mind. There were a few times at the beginning of the novel when I wondered what the heck was going on and what the main conflict was and where it was all leading to and what was the point. The Goldfinch painting seemed to hold so much gravity at the beginning, and it is what the novel is named after, but then The Goldfinch seemed to disappear. The painting later did make a significant reappearance in the story, and I wondered why all the stuff that happened in between mattered, why it couldn't just be cut out and maybe make it a little easier for the readers who were overwhelmed by the book's length.

But everything that happened in between is what makes the story all the more poignant, not just because it allows you to marinate in Tartt's beautiful arrangement of words, but because that's what life is made of, these in-between moments. Until a teleportation device is invented, there's no jumping from point A to point B. And anyway, it's about the journey, not the destination ;)

Related: Enjoying the In-Between via The Fresh Exchange

In real life you aren't given cues like you might get in mystery novels or films--no intensifying background music, no telling camera angles. You don't latch onto every observation. Many things pass you by, some big, some small. Often times it isn't until later that we realize what we had and how it has led us up to this point. It's so easy to romanticize the past and especially the future, but less eagerly do we cherish the Now. We simply do not see whether or not it holds any weight in the big picture. I think John Green's "stars I cannot fathom into constellations" metaphor is applicable here.

Later--in the cab, and afterward--I would replay that moment, and marvel that I'd waved and walked away quite so casually. Why hadn't I grabbed his arm and begged him one last time to get in the car, come on, fuck it, just like skipping school, we'll be eating breakfast over cornfields when the sun comes up? I knew him well enough to know that if you asked him the right way, at the right moment, he would do almost anything; and in the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after me and hopped in the car laughing if I'd asked one last time. But I didn't.

Do you ever find yourself caught up in what-ifs? What if I had said yes? What if I had stuck to it? What if I had put on a smile, even just as a mask? What if I had reached out? What if I had introduced myself? What if I had decided to go out instead of holing up inside with a book or my laptop? The alternatives are endless. Sometimes regrets seep in. Yet I would never change a thing.

Because despite the self-doubt, despite the insecurities, despite wishing I were better (at just about anything really), I like who I am. And everything that has happened to me and that I've done, the good and the bad, however big and however small, has amounted to who I am right now.

Sidenote: After reading this book, I now have greater a fascination with museums. Like how I wanted to study astrophysics after I watched Interstellar.


The absurd does not liberate; it binds. -Albert Camus

At the sight of her I was paralyzed by happiness; it was her down to the most minute detail, the very pattern of her freckles, she was smiling at me, more beautiful and yet not older, black hair and funny upward quirk of her mouth, not a dream but a presence that filled the whole room: a force all her own, a living otherness.

And though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me somewhere happier, to some more populated or congenial life.

Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary--I remember a few weeks before she died, eating a late supper with her in an Italian restaurant down in the Village, and how she grasped my sleeve at the sudden, almost painful loveliness of a birthday cake with lit candles being carried in procession from the kitchen, faint circle of light wavering in across the dark ceiling and then the cake set down to blaze amidst the family, beautifying an old lady's face, smiles all around, waiters stepping away with their hands behind their backs--just an ordinary birthday diner you might see anywhere in an inexpensive downtown restaurant, and I'm sure I wouldn't even remember it had she not died so soon after, but I thought about it again and again after her death and indeed I'll probably think about it all my life: that candlelit circle, a tableau vivant of the daily, commonplace happiness that was lost when I lost her.

And her laugh was enough to make you want to kick over what you were doing and follow her down the street.

It's all perfectly true and I don't believe a word of it.

She wasn't looking at me but out over the park; and her expression made me think of a famous French movie I didn't know the name of, where distracted people walked down wind blown streets and talked a lot but didn't actually seem to be talking to each other.

That shiver of disconnection, the missing seconds on the sidewalk like a hiccup of lost time, or a few frames snipped out of a film.

Yeah, but up here it's still the same as the first day I ever saw it. Time tunnel. On the Lower East Side--well, you know what it's like down there, always something new, but for me it's more like this Rip van Winkle feeling, always further and further away. Some days I'd wake up and it was like they came in and rearranged the storefronts in the night. Old restaurants out of business, some trendy new bar where the dry cleaner's used to be...

And there was something festive and happy about the two of us, hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrella, quick quick quick, for all the world as if we were escaping something terrible instead of running right into it.

It's crazy, but I'd be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can't think of a better way to go insane.

Yet the museum always felt like a holiday.

People die, sure. But it's so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.

Why did I obsess over people like this? Was it normal to fixate on strangers in this particular vivid, fevered way? I didn't think so. It was impossible to imagine some random passer-by on the street forming quite such an interest in me.

For an instant we were wired together and humming, like two engines on the same circuit.

I had a splitting headache and the feeling (new to me then, but now unfortunately all too familiar) of waking up with a nasty hangover, of important things forgotten and left undone.

Her breath smelled minty but also had the slightest underbite of garlic.

She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty--a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room.

I was wide awake, and yet part of me was so glassed-off and numb I was practically in a coma.

What had happened, I knew, was irrevocable, yet at the same time it seemed there had to be some way I could go back to the rainy street and make it all happen differently.

For almost two years he had been my only friend, and vice versa. It depressed and embarrassed me to remember that time: our Autobot wars and Lego spaceships, the secret identities we'd assumed from classic Star Trek (I was Kirk, he was Spock) in an effort to make a game of our own torments. Captain, it would appear that these aliens are holding us captive in some simulacrum of your schools for human children, on Earth.

How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die; a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater. Lying awake, I tried to recall all my best memories of her--to freeze her in my mind so I wouldn't forget her--but instead of birthdays and happy times I kept remembering things like how a few days before she was killed she'd stopped me halfway out the door to pick a thread off my school jacket.

The thought of returning to any kind of normal routine seemed disloyal, wrong. It kept being a shock every time I remembered it, a fresh slap: she was gone. Every new event--everything I did for the rest of my life--would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.

One foot after the other. There's no other away to get through this.

But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.

But the intimacy, the smallness, also made me feel shut out; and I found myself hurrying past the inviting little doorways with my head down, very aware of all the convivial Sunday-morning lives unrolling around me in private.

It was like trying to explain a dream. You couldn't.

It was the most enjoyable conversation I'd had in awhile. He asked me all kinds of interesting questions, like what I'd read in literature and how middle school was different from elementary school--normal stuff, but it was still refreshing to converse with a grown-up who seemed interested in me apart from my misfortune, not prying for information or running down a checklist of Things to Say to Troubled Kids.

He was the kind of man people liked to entrust with their sadness.

The world won't come to me, so I must go to it.

Isn't it always the inappropriate thing, the thing that doesn't quite work, that's oddly the dearest?

"What were you just thinking about?" "Nothing." "Pretty hard to think about absolutely nothing."

And the secret colored everything, like the afterglow of a dream. But it was the most resonant and real-seeming thing that had happened in a long time, and I didn't want to spoil it by talking about it.

You don't have to talk. If you don't feel like it. People always want to talk but I like being quiet.

Faintly, I heard traffic swinging on the street. Sitting there on the edge of her bed, it felt like the waking-up moment between dream and daylight where everything merged and mingled just as it was about to change, all in the same, fluid, euphoric slide: rainy light, Pippa sitting up with Hobie in the doorway, and her kiss (with the peculiar flavor of what I now believe to have been a morphine lollipop) still sticky on my lips. Yet I'm not sure that even morphine would account for how lightheaded I felt at that moment, how smilingly wrapped-up in happiness and beauty.

And the flavor of Pippa's kiss--bittersweet and strange--stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite; my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.

He was a planet without an atmosphere.

You'd be surprised, Theo, what small, everyday things can lift us out of despair. But nobody can do it for you. You're the one who has to watch for the open door.

They were a pair of mice, I thought--only Kitsey was a spun-sugar, fairy-princess mouse whereas Andy was more the kind of luckless, anemic, pet-shop mouse you might feed to your boa constrictor.

Moral of the story is, who knows where it all will take you?

I floated on my back, trying to pick out constellations I knew in the confusing white spatter of stars.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. -Walden by Thoreau

A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. -Walden by Thoreau

But he was used to being on his own. Cheerfully he got himself up for school, hitched his own rides, signed his own report cards, shoplifted his own food and school supplies.

"Um, we don't hit women in America." "No. Americans just persecute smaller countries that believe different from them."

"When you feel homesick," he said, "just look up. Because the moon is the same wherever you go." I mean, even now, in the city, when I see a full moon, it's like he's telling me not to look back or feel sad about things, that home is wherever I am.

When we are sad--at least I am like this--it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the things that don't change.

Your descriptions of the desert--that oceanic, endless glare--are terrible but also very beautiful. Maybe there's something to be said for the rawness and emptiness of it all.

None of us ever find enough kindness in the world, do we?

Happiness, amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn't seem quite such a doomed or fatal idea.

But we were so attuned to each other that we didn't need to talk at all if we didn't want to; we knew how to tip each other into hysterics with an arch of the eyebrow or quirk of the mouth.

And we were made out of the same stuff as the flowers, and we realized how much we loved each other, and needed each other no matter what, and how everything hateful that had happened between us was only out of love.

We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves. -Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I could hardly hear what she was saying, so dazzled was I by her eyes on mine.

Though I would have died rather than told anyone, I was worried that my exuberant drug use had damaged my brain and my nervous system and maybe even my soul in some irreparable and perhaps not readily apparent way.

"Great," I said, "thank you," but when I got off the phone, I felt sick--like someone had just reached a hand in my chest and wrenched loose a lot of ugly wet stuff around my heart.

Rubbing my eyes, trying to keep myself awake with cold showers and iced coffee, I goaded myself on by reminding myself what a good thing I was doing, though my endless cramming felt a lot more like self destruction than any glue-sniffing I'd ever done; and at some bleary point, the work itself became a kind of drug that left me so drained that I could hardly take in my surroundings. And yet I was grateful for the work because it kept me too mentally bludgeoned to think.

I had no desire to exert myself one bit more than I absolutely had to. All I wanted was to scrape by.

I had slipped into a sort of forgetful doze, a skewed, dreamlike version of my former life where I walked familiar streets yet lived in unfamiliar circumstances, among different faces.

Only sometimes, in unguarded moments, it struck through in such mutinous bursts that I stopped mid-step on the sidewalk, amazed. Somehow the present had shrunk into a smaller and much less interesting place. Maybe it was just I'd sobered up a bit, no longer the chronic waste and splendor of those blazing adolescent drunks, our own little warrior tribe of two rampaging in the desert; maybe this was just how it was when you got older, although it was impossible to imagine Boris (in Warsaw, Karmeywallag, New Guinea, wherever) living a sedate prelude-to-adulthood life such as the one I'd fallen into.

I could not envision him preparing in any way to earn a living or to be a productive member of society. And yet to be with Boris was to know that life was full of great, ridiculous possibilities--far bigger than anything they taught in school.

It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons. -Schiller

Whenever she smiled at me Heaven blew in.

But neither of them was real for me; they were only stand-ins for her.

But though I tried to keep my eyes away always it seemed I was glancing up by mistake and there she was, laughing at somebody else's joke or smiling at someone who wasn't me, always a fresh pain, a blow straight to the heart.

For whatever dumb reason I had always flattered myself that I was the only person in the world who really appreciated her--that she would be shocked and touched and maybe even come to view herself in a whole new light if she knew just how beautiful I found her. But this had never happened.

For in the deepest, most unshakable part of myself reason was useless.

Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination.

We belonged together; there was a dream rightness and magic to it, inarguable; the thought of her flooded every corner of my mind with light and poured brightness into miraculous lofts I hadn't even known were there, vistas that seemed to exist not at all except in relationship to her. Over and over I played her favorite Arvo Pärt, as a way of being with her; and she had only to mention a recently read novel for me to grab it hungrily, to be inside her thoughts, a sort of telepathy.

I wrote thirty-page emails to her that I erased without sending, opting instead for the mathematical formula I'd devised to keep from making too big a fool of myself: always three lines shorter than the email she'd sent, always one day longer than I'd waited for her reply.

She was the golden thread running through everything, a lens that magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in relation to her, and her alone.

"Shit," I stood appalled at the bar, ice tons in hand, feeling sick to think of another person ruined by the same poison of why did I and if only that had wrecked my own life.

Strange, I thought, as I jumped a sheet of water at the curb, how a few hours could change everything--or rather, how strange to find that the present contained such a bright shard of the living past, damaged and eroded but not destroyed.

Just the sight of the bundled painting, lonely and pathetic, had scrambled me top to bottom, as if a satellite signal from the past had burst in and jammed all other transmissions.

It was one thing to see a painting in a museum but to see it in all those lights and moods and seasons was to see it a thousand different ways and to keep it shut in the dark--a thing made of light, that only lived in light--was wrong in more ways than I knew how to explain. More than wrong: it was crazy.

All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different, had somehow attached itself, ravenously to her... My hopes for a relationship with her were wholly unreal, whereas my ongoing misery, and frustration, were an all-too-horrible reality. Was groundless, hopeless, unrequited obsession any way to waste the rest of my life?

Who knew it was in my power to make anyone so happy? Or that I could ever be so happy myself?

That was just something I was going to have to live with, the sadness of loving someone I couldn't have.

I loved the fun and wickedness of it, the sheer improbability.

Sure--I did plenty of stupid things. Stupider than you! But me, I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It's different.

And though I couldn't make out what she was saying, the tone of her voice was all too clear: for even in her sadness her joy in him, and his in her, was undisguisable. Any stranger on the street could have seen it. And--as they glided past me, in the dark window, a pair of affectionate ghosts leaning against each other--I saw her reach up quickly to dash a tear from her cheek.

Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to live and be happy in the world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.

I don't expect you to understand but it's rough to be in love with the wrong person.

To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.

It was extraordinary--I could hardly hear a word she was saying. It was always like this when I was in a room with her, she overrode everything.

This was another thing about her; she listened, her attention was dazzling--I never had the feeling that other people listened to me half as closely.

She laughed, and the laugh, for me, had all the joy of the music behind it.

And, well, I'm sure you've heard plenty of it too, that positive-thinking crap that it's so easy for teachers and physical therapists to dole out--"oh, you can do it!" "we believe in you!"--and falling for it and working hard and working harder and hating yourself because you're not working hard enough, thinking it's your fault you're not doing better and working even harder and then--well.

...can I say how cuckoo it sounds? Especially when someone else says it? To blame yourself for not predicting the future?

Yes, but that's almost as bad, isn't it? To see the mistake, the place where you went wrong, and not be able to go back and fix it?

It drew me like a flame.

And whereas some women might have preened themselves and taken pleasure at my misery, it was not amusing to her to see how torn-up I was over her.

And I tried to tell myself it was enough, just to have had her all to myself for a few hours. Only it wasn't.

The sun had come out and there was something hard and bright by the canals, a breathable glitter.

The whole world was laughter bouncing fractal and metallic off the tiled walls, delirium and phantasmagorica, a sense of the world growing and swelling like some fabulous blown balloon floating and billowing away to the stars, and I was laughing too and I wasn't even sure what I was laughing at.

Sometimes it's about playing a poor hand well.

It was important not to think too deeply. The important thing was to ride the energy of the dream that had followed me into waking.

Funny, I thought, going back into the room and picking up the room service menu: to want something so easy, to feel such appetite for appetite itself.

The world is much stranger than we know or can say.

As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.

What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if for some of us, we can't get there any other way?

We looked at each other. And it occurred to me that despite his faults, which were numerous and spectacular, the reason I'd liked Boris and felt happy around him from almost the moment I'd met him was that he was never afraid. You didn't meet many people who moved freely through the world with such a vigorous contempt for it and at the same time such oddball and unthwartable faith in what, in childhood, he had liked to call "the Planet of Earth."

"It does all swing around strangely sometimes, doesn't it?" he said.

How funny time is. How many tricks and surprises.

Idolatry! Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only--if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things--beautiful things--that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?

Who's to say that gamblers don't really understand it better than anyone else? Isn't everything worthwhile a gamble?

I've been thinking a lot about what Hobie said: about those images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find.

Beauty alters the grain of reality.

The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.

Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones?

We don't get to choose our own hearts.

It's a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what's right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: "Be yourself." "Follow your heart." Only here's what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted--?

It's not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn't understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out. A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.

Life is catastrophe.

And as terrible as this is, I get it. We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us. We can't escape who we are.

But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life--whatever else it is--is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn't mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we're not always so glad to be here, it's our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch. 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 brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

PS: eleanor & parksince you've been gonethe best of sherlock holmes