Fiction, Reviews

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

This gorgeous little book appeared somewhere on Twitter (or Instagram?) recently, and the yellow cover caught my eye. It intrigued me. The cover, the title, the fact that it was a debut novel – all things that interested me. I was in Blackwell’s in the Oxford the other day (the new branch!) buying Mother’s Day presents, and decided to treat myself to the signed edition I saw on one of the tables.

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I then did something that rarely happens – I started to read it very soon after I’d bought it. It’s not a long book, only 246 pages, and the type is quite big, and I read it in two evenings and a lunch break. I read it quickly because it’s short, but also because it is completely engaging and enthralling.

I Love You Too Much is narrated by 13-year-old Paul, navigating life after his parents’ unpleasant divorce. The book is set in Paris, and the city is beautifully described by Paul as he wanders around it, both loving and hating it at the same time. He complains about the uniformity, and the peer pressure of the affluent 6th arrondissement where he lives with his mother; but the city is his home and you can feel his affection for it. Drake brings the city to life through Paul.

Drake also perfectly portrays what it is like to be 13 years old, filled with the emotions of puberty, and dealing with post-divorce life in all its glory and pain. Paul reminded me a little of Theo from The Goldfinch – young and naive, and yet wise beyond his years; independent and ruminative; and caught up in the emotions and events of family and life that are beyond his control. They are even the same age.

Paul is a wonderful observer. He watches his mother most keenly, maman, as she obsesses over her looks, her hair, her career, her useless boyfriend Gabriel. The sharp pinpoint at the centre of all this is the fact that she has just had a baby, Lou, with Gabriel. At first Paul is resentful of his new half-sister, uninterested in her. Her presence is an undercurrent in his life throughout the book, reminding him that his mother’s life has continued without him, that she is no longer just his mother anymore.

I think Paul’s mother, Séverine, is one of the most brilliantly drawn characters. Paul adores her, and her pain only seems to make his worse. She is hard on the outside but he can see her vulnerability, and wishes she would spend more time at home and reach out to him. Their relationship is so brilliantly crafted that it feels utterly real, and they feel like real people. I was completely drawn into their world, felt almost like I was seeing too much, but did not want to turn away. For all the cool hardness and aloofness of Séverine, there are some really beautiful moments between mother and son, when you can see into the heart of their relationship. You can see that they really do want each other to be happier, and better.

Paul’s father Philippe is inevitably less present in his life, living separately, but he appears episodically to illustrate their sometimes strained relationship. Paul does not know why his parents divorced, and he doesn’t seem to blame either of them, but the fact that it was his father who moved out, who seems to live a separate life, means that he attracts some of Paul’s resentment towards the whole situation. Philippe often seems oddly unemotional, and you can feel Paul yearning for more from his father. Several scenes with Philippe’s family carefully show us more of his psyche, his emotional life.

Similarly there are key moments with Séverine’s mother that show us more of their relationship. We see how Paul’s mother has come to be as she is. And as the book goes on, these parts of the family come together in Paul, and we see how he was formed, and why he is who he is.

A key part of Paul’s experience in the novel is his burgeoning friendship with Scarlett, the girl at school that all the other boys want. They meet on holiday and recognise each other from school, bonding over their distant parents and general dissatisfaction with life. In some ways Scarlett is an archetype of a moody teenage girl rebelling against everything and constantly looking for ways to feel better, to escape her own pain. She complements Paul well throughout the story, and provides him with the emotional attention he needs – and in her neediness gives him something outside of himself and his family to care about.

I won’t say too much, in order not to give anything away. The plot moves at a mixed pace, flowing nicely so that it never moves too fast or two slow. Enough time passes that things change, but it still feels like the novel represents a certain period in Paul’s life. It is a period of intense change, of growth, for better or worse. The last chapter is a perfect summation, a brilliant, brilliant ending. It is one of about three or four books ever that have made me cry. I highly recommend it.

*

Published in the UK by Picador and in the US by Little Brown. I read the UK edition, pictured above.

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Articles, Comment

True Love

Today The Guardian published an article entitled “Donna Tartt: Is this the year of The Goldfinch?” Of course I read it. I first read Tartt over ten years ago and something in me still remembers how it made me feel – that discovery of an author who did something different to all the other authors you had ever read, an author who wrote what felt like real life and real people.

She was one of the first adult writers I read on my own (at the age of 15 I was reading Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare at school, and at home I was somewhere between Northern Lights and the Chrestomanci novels by Diana Wynne Jones) and she opened up a whole new world for me. Not just to world of The Secret History, but the world of ‘literature’ that I could completely grasp and understand on my own – though it took two readings for me to really get all of it.

The Little Friend had already come out when I read The Secret History, so I dived right in. As the article I’ve mentioned states, “The Little Friend is a far more convincing, technically accomplished and formally sophisticated novel than The Secret History” and so as a ‘young reader’ it was a bit tricky for me. But I loved it anyway and luxuriated in Tartt’s language and the captivating (and utterly real) characters. Its difficulties are why it is currently on my To Re-Read List, and when I’ve got the time (!) I really cannot wait to get into it again.

Anyway. My reason for writing this article is that even though Tartt won the Pulitzer recently, and The Goldfinch was a huge success, and everyone thinks she’ll win the Booker, and the Bailey’s Prize, she has not become so ‘big’ that she cannot connect with her readers, or that she has become engulfed by the amazingness of her own talent. She is a rare type of writer, in a vein with (for me) Marilynne Robinson and Truman Capote – someone who simultaneously takes us on flights of fancy and also completely, utterly, gets what life is and how people are, even if they don’t know it. I read their work and I think, god, yes, how do you know that? That is so true.

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The ‘holy trinity’

 

I guess this is how people get ‘favourite authors’.

Here is the Guardian article for you.

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Articles, Interviews, Reviews

Donna Tartt Interviewed on CBS

A little more Donna Tartt excitement for you!

She recently recorded her only American TV appearance for This Morning on CBS, and here it is! The interviewer has some great questions but quite an odd way of talking that is a bit off-putting, and fades out the ends of Donna’s answers – but it is still excellent, especially as they go to see The Goldfinch (the actual one!!) in New York, which is wonderful. Enjoy!

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Events

An Evening With Donna Tartt

Let me just say this now: Donna Tartt is my favourite writer. Hands down. I read The Secret History and then The Little Friend about ten years ago, and something latched on inside of me and has never let go.

I was amazed and excited to hear that she would be publishing a new novel this year. I tore through The Goldfinch (you can read my thoughts on it here) and before I had even got a copy I ran to Blackwell’s to buy a ticket for the event I attended tonight, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The Divinity School at The Bodleian Library. A beautiful and perfect venue.

The Divinity School at The Bodleian Library. A beautiful and perfect venue.

I have seen and met authors before whom I respected and whose books I love; but for me this was different. I was overwhelmed even at being in the same room as Donna Tartt. I gasped when I saw how tiny she is in real life – and how neat and modest, her black bob perfect as always and her slim frame wrapped in a dark suit. And yet she is bright, with wide eyes and a beautiful voice. She talked with passion and intelligence about how she writes constantly, always carrying a notebook with her and jotting down descriptions, ideas, scenes – some of which will never be part of a finished book but are, for her, like scales are to a musician or sketches are to a painter.

She talked a lot about art. Fabritius’ painting ‘The Goldfinch’ is her new novel’s namesake but also a force behind the story that drives it along but also pushes and pulls it around; it is also a painting that Tartt loves and that she writes about with great beauty and understanding. She spoke of going to a private viewing of the painting and those with it it the gallery in Amsterdam with her Dutch publisher and the majesty of the artworks and the deep affect they had on her – to see them in person. Donna Tartt is a writer but she understands what it is to be an artist in all senses of the word. She understands the impetus to create, and also the deep joy that art can bring to those who experience it.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Image: commons.wikimedia.orf

The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

She also loves antiques (very important in The Goldfinch and an element I loved – Hobie’s shop is almost magical) and sleeps in the same carved bed that her grandmother was born in. It is a bed that came from France in a ship (to America), and as a child she was amazed by this. She had never been in a ship to France and neither had anyone else she knew; but the bed had, and it contained something of the ship and the ocean within it. This is why Donna Tartt is so wonderful – she sees the beauty in the world and translates it into beautiful writing for her readers to enjoy.

After the event there was a signing. I queued, nervous, clutching my huge hardback copy of The Goldfinch. What would I say? What would she say? As she wrote my name and her own, I told Donna Tartt that The Secret History was my favourite book and I thanked her for her work; she looked so pleased, and she shook my hand.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

*

The Goldfinch is out now from Little, Brown.

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Articles, Interviews

Clip: Kirsty Wark Interviews Donna Tartt

I was stupid enough to be busy on the night when BBC Four showed a Review Show Special of Kirsty Wark interviewing Donna Tartt – and now it is gone from iPlayer! But I found a section of it that Newsnight put on YouTube – so here it is…

It is an utter joy to hear the ever reclusive Tartt speak about her work, as well as to hear her read from The Goldfinch. Makes me even more excited for seeing her in Oxford in a couple of weeks!

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Fiction, Reviews

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Where do I begin? The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch. It still hasn’t entirely sunk in that Donna Tartt has written another novel; that it is out this year; that it is called The Goldfinch. And yet I have read a proof copy of it, all 771 pages, kindly sent to me by someone at Little, Brown.

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(image: goodreads.com)

I read her two previous novels quite close together when I was about 14 or 15, and loved them both, The Secret History in particular. It is the only book I have read more than once and I still remember scenes from it as if I saw them as a film, or as if I was there – Francis’ country house in particular. Bunny coming downstairs in pyjamas with ruffled hair for a drink; someone playing the piano; Camilla cutting her foot on a stone in the lake; and Richard looking at her ‘dusty boy feet’ in the kitchen, overwhelmed by her beauty.

There were ten years between the publication of The Secret History and that of The Little Friend in 2002, and now we have waited eleven years for The Goldfinch. And, to ask that ridiculous question, was it worth the wait?

If you love Tartt’s novels, then there is no doubt, of course it was worth it. Just to have more of her words is reason enough to wait eleven years. Obviously I had read the snippets of information about the plot of The Goldfinch, but it did not really prepare me for the reality of it.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, miraculously survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is bewildered by his new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld.

That, taken from the back of my proof copy, does not even touch the surface. There is infinitely more. Each phrase there, each thing that happens to Theo, is so much more complicated and has so much more depth than it appears to. The simplest things have such resonance.

A lot of The Goldfinch is about the question of what is the right thing to do – what is best, what should we do, what would our mothers do? Are they always right? What about our fathers?

Theo’s mother is a ‘presence’ throughout this novel, and it occurred to me that no other parent has played such a crucial role in Tartt’s other novels. In The Secret History, Richard’s parents feature only in the early stages of the book as he applies to college. His father wants him to take over the family business, and his mother is a housewife. In my memory they are like zombie cartoons, stock characters that Richard uses to demonstrate to the reader how empty and meaningless his life in Plano was before he came to Vermont. In The Little Friend, our central characters Harriet and Hely seem to operate almost entirely independently of their parents, despite being about ten years old. Harriet’s mother is sickly and wafts in the background; the only time she or any other parent has any influence is when Harriet is sent away to camp. It’s been ten years since I read either novel, so forgive me if I am wrong, but Theo’s mother seems like the first of Tartt’s fictional parents to be entirely good, entirely wanted and loved by the child. Though perhaps this is because Theo loses her when he is so young, and he is so lost without her.

Theo is indeed lost. He gets lost again and again and again in this story. And the reader gets lost with him. He is an entirely immersive narrator, and even when parts of his story are bleak and I didn’t necessarily enjoy reading about them (particularly the middle section during his teens), I still wanted to be there with him. You want Theo to survive, even when he makes mistakes and acts like a complete arsehole. Which he does, on several occasions. You will him to make the right decision. But of course, Tartt is asking us throughout the novel, what is the right decision? And how do you know it’s right?

The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel (though it has been more than 20 years since the first), but having read all of them I can see how she has matured as a novelist. While The Secret History and The Little Friend both had philosophical elements, The Goldfinch is an exploration of not only the protagonist’s story but also of the possibility of fate and limits of morality. That said, I did not find it too overreaching or preachy; and its narrative does not get lost in philosophising about life separate from the thrust of the plot. It is literally longer in length but also feels deeper and wider than the two earlier novels, like it contains more – it is not just Theo’s story in relation to the painting, but it is the whole of his world and his life; and the lives of so many around him. This one small painting of a goldfinch is the centre of Theo’s world but also the entire book, the entire story.

As I began to read I was terrified that I would not like the latest novel by my favourite writer; but I was happily enveloped in Tartt’s style again, her world that she creates for her readers, and for her characters to inhabit. They could all plausibly exist within the same world, and it felt good to be back. I had really missed reading Donna Tartt’s work and I felt relieved to be reading her again. The Goldfinch is entirely new, entirely different and modern; but it still feels like Donna Tartt, it is still intelligent and beautiful, complex and real.

It may be another ten+ years that we have to wait for another Tartt novel – but it will be worth it; and we have this to sustain us in the meantime.

*

Published by Little, Brown in the UK and US on 22nd October 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Donna Tartt interviewed about The Goldfinch in The New York Times

Also from The New York Times, Tartt’s reading habits

Tartt is doing a few events around the UK – rare and almost sold out!

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