Meanwhile my motherred-nosed and breathless from our dash through the rainwas grappling for her wallet. "Maybe when we're done I'll duck in the gift shop," she was saying. "I'm sure the last thing Mathilde wants is an art book but it'll be hard for her to complain much about it without sounding stupid."
"Yikes," I said. "The present's for Mathilde?" Mathilde was the art director of the advertising firm where my mother worked; she was the daughter of a French fabric-importing magnate, younger than my mother and notoriously fussy, apt to throw tantrums if the car service or the catering wasn't up to par.
"Yep." Wordlessly, she offered me a stick of gum, which I accepted, and then threw the pack back in her purse. "I mean, that's Mathilde's whole thing, the well-chosen gift shouldn't cost a lot of money, it's all about the perfect inexpensive paperweight from the flea market. Which would be fantastic, I guess, if any of us had time to go downtown and scour the flea market. Last year when it was Pru's turn? She panicked and ran into Saks on her lunch hour and ended up spending fifty bucks of her own money on top of what they gave her, for sunglasses, Tom Ford I think, and Mathilde still had to get her crack in about Americans and consumer culture. Pru isn't even American, she's Australian."
"Have you discussed it with Sergio?" I said. Sergioseldom in the office, though often in the society pages with people like Donatella Versacewas the multimillionaire owner of my mother's firm; "discussing things with Sergio" was akin to asking: "What would Jesus do?"
"Sergio's idea of an art book is Helmut Newton or maybe that coffee-table book that Madonna did a while back."
I started to ask who Helmut Newton was, but then had a better idea. "Why don't you get her a MetroCard?"
My mother rolled her eyes. "Believe me, I ought to." There had recently been a flap at work when Mathilde's car was held up in traffic, leaving her stranded in Williamsburg at a jeweler's studio.
"Likeanonymously. Leave one on her desk, an old one without any money on it. Just to see what she'd do."
"I can tell you what she'd do," said my mother, sliding her membership card through the ticket window. "Fire her assistant and probably half the people in Production as well."
My mother's advertising firm specialized in women's accessories. All day long, under the agitated and slightly vicious eye of Mathilde, she supervised photo shoots where crystal earrings glistened on drifts of fake holiday snow, and crocodile handbagsunattended, in the back seats of deserted limousinesglowed in coronas of celestial light. She was good at what she did; she preferred working behind the camera rather than in front of it; and I knew she got a kick out of seeing her work on subway posters and on billboards in Times Square. But despite the gloss and sparkle of the job (champagne breakfasts, gift bags from Bergdorf's) the hours were long and there was a hollowness at the heart of it thatI knewmade her sad. What she really wanted was to go back to school, though of course we both knew that there was little chance of that now my dad had left.
"Okay," she said, turning from the window and handing me my badge, "help me keep an eye on the time, will you? It's a massive show"she indicated a poster, PORTRAITURE AND NATURE MORTE: NORTHERN MASTERWORKS OF THE GOLDEN AGE"we can't see it all on this visit, but there are a few things "
Her voice drifted away as I trailed behind her up the Great Staircasetorn between the prudent need to stick close and the urge to slink a few paces back and try to pretend I wasn't with her.
"I hate to race through like this," she was saying as I caught up with her at the top of the stairs, "but then again it's the kind of show where you need to come two or three times. There's The Anatomy Lesson, and we do have to see that, but what I really want to see is one tiny, rare piece by a painter who was Vermeer's teacher. Greatest Old Master you've never heard of. The Frans Hals paintings are a big deal, too. You know Hals, don't you? The Jolly Toper? And the almshouse governors?"
Excerpted from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Copyright © 2013 by Donna Tartt. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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