I used to think I got a lot of books. The mail carrier, the UPS truck, the Fed-Ex truck — they came to my house three or four times a week and brought me things that people wanted me to read. I look back on those days now and realize I had no idea what the phrase "I get a lot of books" even meant. Now I own half a bookstore. NOW I get a lot of books. Everyone who wants to find me now has an address, and every publisher who would like me to blurb a book, and every author who would like me to read their book or help them get their book published (let me spare you the postage: I can't do that for you) sends me a book or a galley or simply a huge pile of paper. I read my friends' books. I try to read the books of the people who are coming to read at the store. I read books I walk by on the new-release table that look good. I read books the smart booksellers in our store are reading because they can be very persuasive. I read books that get great reviews. I read books on the high school summer-reading table that I should have read in high school. Because there is always a long, nagging line of things to be read, I am quick to put a book down if I don't love it. And while the looming tower of books can be overwhelming at times, I know that mine is a problem that many people would love to have. It's always better to have too much to read than not enough.
It's pretty safe to say that if there's a book I want to read I can get my hands on it. I can always find someone who is willing to send me a manuscript. With the exception of The Goldfinch, the book I've been dying to read for the last 12 years.
Donna Tartt's first novel, the internationally celebrated The Secret History, was published the same week in 1992 as my own first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, and we gave one of our first readings together at a Southeastern Booksellers Association meeting which was held that year in New Orleans. (The nice woman sitting beside me in the audience, who asked me polite questions about my book while she waited for our reading to start, turned out to be Anne Rice.) I was so glad to be reading with Donna, who was just my age and a first-time author herself. Donna was completely lovely, and we swapped our books and wrote sweet notes to one another on the title pages, and that was that.
Years later our paths crossed again and we became good friends. We have been friends for all the years she's been writing The Goldfinch, and while I've put considerable energy into hassling her, I never saw a page of the book while she was working on it. She told me that a painting figured into things, and that a character at some point went to Amsterdam. That was all. She finished the book. She edited the book. I continued to plead my case. I want to read the book now! Well, no luck. Finally, a few weeks before the galleys of The Goldfinch were to be ready, I caught a terrible cold. I couldn't get off the couch. I couldn't do anything but read. "Now," I told her. "It has to be now." So Donna emailed me the book, all 800 pages, and I printed it out. (I don't like to read on a screen and I thought, erroneously, there might be something for me to mark up.) I started reading at about 4:00 that afternoon, and two days later, around 10:00 at night, I had finished it. I felt like my left eyeball was going to fall out of my head.
One of the great things about being a writer is that every now and then you get the chance to read a great novel as a raw stack of paper — no flap copy, no blurbs, no jacket art, no opinions — just the book itself, the way it was written. As far as this one is concerned, every sentence is a work of art. The plot is so compelling, so moving and surprising, that I won't tell you one thing about it other than there's a painting involved and a character that goes to Amsterdam. Donna was being a good friend by not telling me any more than that. She was protecting my experience of reading the book for the first time, and that was an experience I wouldn't have missed out on for anything.
People always want to know why it takes Donna so long to write a book, but really, just do the math. One of her books is as long and as complicated as three regular novels, so why wouldn't it take her three times as long to write it? The Goldfinch is a tour de force, and absolutely worth the wait.
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Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize), and the nonfiction bestsellers What Now? and Truth and Beauty. Her latest book is This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is co-owner of Parnassus Books.
Books mentioned in this post
Ann Patchett is the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage