alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “Donna Tartt”

Great First Lines

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”

First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.

There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.

Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White

“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

And—one of my all-time favorites:

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)

The Lure of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch


This is my 21-year-old son Davison, reading during spring break from college.

Reading! Proof that college students still read books when they’re not in school. And he happened to be reading a book I gave him, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I can’t even express how happy this makes me. I gave it to him for Christmas, thinking, He has to read this book—everyone has to read this book, even as I doubted whether he’d get to it anytime soon. It’s 771 pages long, after all, and he was about to embark on another term of challenging classes. But he took it back to school with him, and lo and behold, he was in the thick of it by the time I saw him in March. I asked him what he thought, and he said he wanted to see Theo, Tartt’s protagonist, catch a break, just one. I knew exactly what he meant. Tartt sucks you into a world that is so vividly rendered and so painful for Theo that you feel like you are suffering alongside him, an invisible companion who can’t do anything but watch and worry and hope that happiness is just around the bend. Then Tartt turns around and challenges our assumptions about what constitutes a meaningful life. At the end, Theo tells us, “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.” It’s not an uplifting book, but it’s an unforgettable one.

I feel lucky that Davison’s formative years came before technology seeped into every crevice of of everyday life. When he was six or eight, computer games were new, and we had maybe one or two. (I remember the Freddy the Fish game—pretty cute, as I recall. Freddy helps you on a deep-sea treasure hunt.) He didn’t have a cell phone until he was thirteen—one of those flip phones. There was no texting or apps. I can’t make any statements of fact here, but I believe that he read more in his free time than he might’ve had he had access to social media, the Internet and the vast array of computer-based games that exist today.

Studies on kids and reading are troubling. Only about half of kids ages six to eight are reading daily; that number falls to a quarter by age fifteen. According to one study, the percentage of seventeen-year-olds who never or hardly ever read has gone from 7% to 27% in the last thirty years. (I’m assuming the study is referring to reading for fun. Schools may have eliminated art, music and physical activity—at least in New York City—but they’ve hung onto the three Rs. For now.) How do we keep reading books a part of the picture? It’s up to parents. We need to read to our kids when they’re young—from the time they are babies for as long as they’ll let us. It’s the only way to instill a love of reading and stories (which I can’t believe aren’t innate in kids). And then we have to encourage them as they learn how to read. We need to help them choose books and bring them books and make reading a family activity.

This is pretty obvious stuff, I know. Also, it doesn’t always work. My sister says her two boys, 10 and 12, are off books. Period. Nothing to be done. If it were me, I’d keep trying. Just like you don’t give up trying to get your kids to eat vegetables, you have to keep trying with books.

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