We moved to San Ramon when I was 16; for 2 years I commuted to my small Catholic high school in San Francisco. My mom and I would be dropped off – rather unceremoniously – around 7:00 am every morning on Market Street while my step-dad – early shift – went to work. Market Street was much more navigable then: fewer aggressive vagrants, less brazen street crime. But it was seedy and my mom and I might as well have had targets painted on us, me with my brown plaid uniform skirt (pleated!) and she with fashionable high heels and a purse crammed with credit cards. I think that’s why I got a job at the Market Street Wendy’s: just to have some place to go for an hour and a half before school. How we would have embraced a Peet’s or a Starbuck’s! But this was before email or cell phones; modern cafes were scarce. Nice Asian ladies working prep shifts in restaurants would often take pity on us and serve us tepid coffee. Sometimes my scary boss at Wendy’s would let my mom in for their faux-java swill while she lambasted me about my bad tomato-chopping attitude. (This could be the reason I hate making salads. If there is a potluck situation I immediately assign the salad choice to someone else. So much wasted chopping time when I could be rolling out cookie dough.)
My employment history continued along a similar vein for several years, mostly because of my commute. You may ask why I didn’t just transfer to a sparkly new high school in the East Bay. Let’s do some calculations. Current high school: 300 students, all girls. Social status at current high school: invisible but comfortable, which means I never got asked to any dances but I also avoided getting beaten up by local derby-jacket-wearing cholas, a victory in itself. I put this solidly in the win column. Plus, I’d figured out my hair situation by then (finally departing the Chaka Khan train) and I had smart friends who didn’t know how to put on make-up either and were willing to occasionally discuss the hazards of nervous sweat. Potential high school: 1,200 students, half boys. OK to stop right there; I’m sure you get my drift. There was social failure staring at me, waiting to grab hold of my Class of 1980 sweater! Also, I wasn’t as smart as the nuns thought; I didn’t care to have that exposed by 1,199 other kids. The nice Asian ladies were easier to fool.
All of this brings me to the book I finally finished after half a century: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I read The Secret History, which I remember liking, although it was a bit like viewing an interesting art house movie, in that I saw it but didn’t really understand it. The Goldfinch is a remarkable and long-winded journey. Tartt is a tortuous kind of writer; her prose is so yummy and chewy you can’t help but stick with it. I found, though, she used her protagonist Theo like a literary tease. I rooted for him while being absolutely disappointed in him. I slapped my forehead over his decisions and applauded his insight. For as long as it took me to read this book I felt like I’d raised Theo myself. So much happens to this painting and to this boy I cannot go into detail; read the front jacket flap. If you like minute detail on art, drug-addiction, unrequited love, absolute parental love, child abuse, refurbishing antiques and seedy Russians, you will love this book. I was riveted. That said, I have penned a short letter to the author:
Dear Ms. Tartt,
I have enclosed the contact details for a good friend who is also, conveniently, an editor. She will guide your hand as you delete all the unnecessary details about Theo’s junkie odor to Pippa’s luminous pallor, to name a few. You will then have yourself a modern classic which, clearly, is your goal. Keep up the good work! Go Mets!