Funny how one incident, one disaster can irrevocably change a person’s life. For Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker who’s just beginning to push at rules and restrictions, a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother is a distraction from a more pressing issue: a meeting at school and a possible expulsion. That worry, however, becomes a drop in a spectacular flood that soon engulfs the young boy’s life.
Plot Overview: Tragedy, Growth and Fate
Inside the museum, Theo’s mother lovingly examines paintings by Dutch masters, explaining nuances and brushstrokes to her son; she is most captivated by Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” a simple yet telling piece of art. Theo, though, only has eyes for a redheaded girl wandering through the exhibition with an older gentleman. Just as Theo works up the nerve to say hello, the building explodes, destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb.
Theo survives, only to find the gentleman, Welton “Welty” Blackwell, barely alive. The young boy sits with the man until he finally succumbs to his injuries. Before Welty passes, however, he instructs Theo to take “The Goldfinch,” which remains almost untouched. The boy does then makes his escape, the painting rolled into his bag.
Following the attack, Theo is taken in by his friend, Andy’s, family, the Barbours. The Barbours are an odd, upperclass bunch, prone to stiff conversations and even stiffer drinks. Theo, unsettled and traumatized, does his best to ingratiate himself with the family. Just as the grief-stricken boy begins to feel comfortable, Theo’s father, a neglectful alcoholic, reappears.
With Theo in tow, Larry Decker and his girlfriend, Xandra, head to Las Vegas. The couple, more involved with drinking, substance abuse and gambling, leave Theo to care for himself. With the newfound freedom – and no supervision to speak of – Theo and his best friend, Ukrainian transplant Boris, embark on a drug-fueled adventure. Before long, the fun spins out of control, and Theo shortly finds himself lost. With nowhere to go, he returns to New York, to the doorstep of Welty’s business partner, Hobie. There, Theo attempts to mature, but his rootless childhood, his addictions, his unrequited love for the redheaded girl (Pippa, Welty’s niece, who also survived the bombing), but cannot right himself. The only consistent part of his life is “The Goldfinch.”
Criticisms and Compliments
Although Donna Tartt may not be the most prolific writer, what she does produce is captivating – and that’s not a hyperbole. Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch is a stunning examination of tragedy, of the beauty and ugliness that hides in the cracks of a damaged life. Theo, through each phase of his adolescence, absorbs the subtle dynamics of dysfunction, and the experience shapes the malleable teen into an ambiguously moral businessman with a penchant for drugs. Theo’s identity, however, seems solely based on fate: What if his mother hadn’t died? What if he had stayed with the Barbours? What if he hadn’t been shuttled to Las Vegas? What if he had never stolen the painting?
Fiction is based on “what ifs,” and Tartt’s exploration of the coulda, would, shouldas not only adds momentum to the hefty novel (or really, the series of novellas), but also draws a sense of sorrow in the reader. How could Theo, who had such potential, who was so vulnerable, turn out to be such an unhappy, amoral person? It’s perplexing, given that Theo is, generally, likable and deserves sympathy. Then again, by Tartt exposing his every flaw, every addiction and every shady dealing, she creates one of the most human of literary characters. (With that said, Boris and Hobie are also uniquely drawn personalities who add zest to an otherwise melancholy tale.)
What’s noteworthy about The Goldfinch, as well, is even though it’s dense and long (and starts to slow near the end), it is engrossing. Theo, though he (or Tartt) tends to be redundant with metaphors, is a terrific narrator. And, isn’t it the nature of the reader to be curious about a character’s life? Tartt, thankfully, gives the reader the gift of tracing her lovelorn, drug-addled protagonist’s life through childhood, through tragedy and death and crime, until he finally reaches peace.
- Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. Little, Brown and Company, 2013 ISBN 9780316055437