99 Percent: Listening to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

the goldfinch

By Sarah Ernestine

I waited seven years to read The Goldfinch.

Someone gifted me a copy back in high school when it won a Pulitzer, but it got packed away and put in storage when I moved off to college. When I moved back to England, a professor mentioned the movie adaptation, so I bought a used copy offline—much less commitment. The cover was worn, a crease line forming a triangle on the cover where anxious hands subconsciously pleated the top corner. I told myself I’d finally get around to reading it; I’d like it if I tried it. But I didn’t read that copy either. A friend in my MA program mentioned the book recently, recounting the months they’d spent slowly working their way through it. So finally, I got a copy of the audiobook, thirty-four hours long—even less commitment. I started listening one night about two in the morning thinking if nothing else, it could coax me to sleep.

For over a week, the book became my only thought. Headphones tucked in as I pulled my hood up against the brisk London air, audio on speaker as I steeped in a bath until the water cooled. I knew the painting now, The Goldfinch. I could have described each brushstroke without ever having seen it; I saw the pigments floating behind closed eyelids. I recognized the small red-faced bird with its yellow-banded wings. My finger could trace the arch of the delicate chain tethering its foot to a perch. In my small bedroom, I jumped at a police siren from the street below. I pictured their broad shoulders and black boots stomping mud into the stairs’ carpet before they’d fling open my bedroom door, snatching the book from my shelf. I understood Theo’s need to cling to something greater than himself. Because I too had The Goldfinch, and who was I to hold it. I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book that night. I gave up at 4 a.m. when the magpies began to hum on the roof, pausing the audiobook at 99 percent. Eleven minutes, eight seconds left. I wanted to save the ending, to sit with the characters a little longer.

The next morning, my mom called from the United States. A real phone call, not a Skype call or Zoom call or a recorded voice memo. Her wife had died the night before, about the time I paused The Goldfinch. I had every chance to read the book for seven years, but I finished it that morning. That day, I sat cross-legged on the floor as the narrator version of Theo said, “And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my nonexistent readers, and I feel I should say it urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is—is short.”

Maybe I should never have finished it. I could have held on to that 1 percent, keeping the art for myself, never to be uncovered and viewed in harsh fluorescent light. I could have kept its secrets. But I listened. In a damp second-floor bedroom the size of a walnut shell, the book had found me when I needed it. I didn’t read it in high school. I didn’t read it when I lived in the little yellow house at the end of the cul-de-sac. It cut through the gap and sought me out as I wandered the globe. It hovered overhead, waiting years to fall into place in my palms and whisper stories in my ears.

“It is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”

A little birdie told me so.


Sarah Ernestine was raised in the southern United States but currently lives in London where she recently completed her MA in publishing. She loves finding the juncture of art and literature, writing mostly poetry and creative nonfiction. She is a contributing writer for The Publishing Post Magazine. Her writing has previously been featured in Inverted Syntax, UniSlam Anthology 2021, and Better than Starbucks. You can find her on Twitter at @sarah_ernestine. Two of her poems are published in Capsule Stories Summer 2021 Edition.

Sarah Ernestine
Sarah Ernestine

Submit your essay about reading the right book at the right time to our blog!

Disclosure: Capsule Stories is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, and we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Please consider buying your books through Bookshop.org to support independent bookstores—and Capsule Stories!