Don’t be put off by the heft of this book. At 771 pages, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is not light reading on any level.
The Goldfinch starts off with Theo Decker, age 27, holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, deeply troubled, and then circles back to the shocking event that kicked off his extraordinary journey. Theo’s life changed forever when, as a 13-year-old boy, he and his mother, Audrey, are killing time before a dreaded appointment at his school for disciplinary reasons. Caught in a sudden thunderstorm, Audrey and Theo duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When his mother decides to go to the gift shop, Theo stays behind to look at a painting, while entranced by a young girl who is at the museum with an older man. That’s when a terrorist explosion rips through the museum. In the hazy aftermath, the old man gives Theo a ring and urges him to take a painting that had fallen to the floor, The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. A Dutch painter, who ironically died in a gunpowder explosion, Fabritius was Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher.
With Theo’s dad, a failed actor, alcoholic and gambler, out of the picture, the 13-year-old boy ends up in the posh Park Avenue home of classmate, Andy Barbour. He traces the ring back to an antique shop in Greenwich Village called Hobart and Blackwell and eventually meets James “Hobie” Hobart, who explains that Weldon Blackwell was the old man who died in the terrorist bombing and the young girl was Pippa, his niece. Hobie, a gentle and thoughtful man, takes Theo under his wing and teaches him the furniture restoration trade. Pippa, injured in the bombing, comes to be viewed by Theo as his soul mate and the only person who can understand the ordeal they both endured.
As Theo struggles to adjust to life with the well-heeled Barbours, his AWOL father shows up with his pill-popping girlfriend, Xandra. They spirit poor Theo away to a never-finished housing development on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where he befriends a similarly motherless immigrant from the Ukraine, the irrepressible Boris Pavlikovsky, the most captivating character in the book. While his dad is gambling and Xandra is off working, Theo and Boris pass the time watching TV, drinking beer and getting high. They scavenge for food and shoplift to get whatever they need.
The painting is sealed in a pillowcase hidden under Theo’s bed. For years, Theo battles against the natural instinct to turn in the painting, but he hangs onto it. The painting is a connection to something beautiful and a reminder of his mother and it soothes his aching heart.
Theo eventually finds himself back in New York City and Hobie becomes his temporary guardian. His turbulent journey to adulthood includes heavy drug use and a harrowing experience with underworld associates of Boris.
This is as much a book about the intersection of art and life as it is about the journey of a flawed young man. The value of an artistic work, in this case the pilfered painting, lies in its simple beauty and what Theo sees as his connection to his mother.
Tartt is an accomplished writer whose vivid and incisive prose infuses every page with energy. Despite the book’s length, the story never drags. Theo’s final reflections provide a superb capstone to this powerful story. Theo speaks about a middle zone between reality and where the mind strikes reality, “a rainbow’s edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
Theo continues the thought, “And—I would argue as well—all love…”