Ruth Bass: Tough going in hearing prize novel



When Donna Tartt’s latest novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, it seemed like the right time to delve into a best-seller. Someone else at the Richmond Free Public Library had the same idea, so I went on the waiting list.

But there, in the ever-changing collection of recorded books, was the audio version, far thicker than most of the books we listen to in the car. It was, however, a place to start and then pick up the hardcover when it was my turn.

It was never my turn. Weeks after shoving Disc 1 into the slot in the car, I was still being read to, and less than halfway through the 26 discs, I considered quitting. But she won the Pulitzer Prize, I thought, and plowed on. If I had been holding the 700-something pages in my lap, quitting probably would have happened, even though I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve failed to finish.

Mark Twain’s autobiography, a tome, doesn’t count yet as unfinished, by the way. It’s still there, place marked, interest high, dipping in from time to time. But "War and Peace" went back on the shelf years ago with less than 100 pages read. I know, I know. It’s a great book.

It was troubling to increasingly dislike a book that had won a cherished prize,, especially when The New York Times ("a rapturous, symphonic whole") and others were writing ecstatic reviews.

If the print copy had shown up, the book might have been easier. That’s when you can skim or even skip. But audio gives every word, usually brilliantly performed by one or more actors. And when the "hero" and his friend indulge in teen-age drug-taking, alcohol binging and wrestling day after day and disc after disc -- all the while going to school each day -- doubts wriggle in. First, you think the book should have been shorter. Eventually you begin to consider the legitimacy of the original premise - that a 13-year-old boy would take a valuable painting from a museum attacked by terrorists, hide it and for years tell no one.

It’s hard to go on when improbability rears its ugly head in a book that purports to be telling a proper story. To my relief, an article in Vanity Fair shed new light in an article that brings out the other side. A writer in The New Yorker mentioned "relentless, far-fetched plotting," although reading his review came after I’d renewed the book several times and was pushing for the finish line. Still, it was reassuring even then to have one of the literary police put one’s vague apprehensions into a simple phrase.

And it admittedly was wonderful that the comments were made in simple phrases, something Donna Tartt never does. Describing any scene, she feels compelled to use 10 descriptive phrases as if she could not somehow pick one.

Some of the book’s naysayers seemed appalled by the ending. It was a soliloquy from the "hero," a preachy mess in which the author seems to feel a need (lengthy) to explain the book. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading that part and still thinking the book "connects with the heart," as the Times reviewer said.

It will be interesting to see how quickly it goes out again, once it’s back on Richmond’s shelf. In the meantime, several books of spring and summer have had great appeal, sometimes audio, sometimes not. They include Deborah Johnson’s "The Secret of Magic," Wiley Cash’s "The Road to Mercy" and most recently, E. L. Doctorow’s "Andrew’s Brain."

All of them have a reason to be. None of them use too many words. None feels obliged to tell you what the book means.

Ruth Bass is a novelist and free-lance writer. Her web site is


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