The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
We meet Theo Decker in a hotel room in Amsterdam. Anonymous, alienated, desperate to decipher the Dutch news, Theo is a mess. He’s cold, sick and he’s been consuming “too many cigarettes; lukewarm vodka” during a string of “restless, shut-up days.” Theo dreams of his mother, who died many years ago, “her death the dividing mark: Before and After” as he takes us back to his childhood, his memories his only escape from this self-imposed prison cell of a hotel room. This lengthy flashback forms most of Donna Tartt’s third and much anticipated novel The Goldfinch, as Theo recalls everything that has led up to this strange, tense “inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom.” Theo and his mother live small, happy lives in New York City. His father deserted them but isn’t missed much; both son and mother are content to live with what they’ve got, no matter how little it may seem in comparison to the wealth of Theo’s Upper East Side friends.
One rainy day, Theo and his mother step into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to try and stay dry and are caught in a horrific terrorist bombing. One moment 13-year-old Theo is trying to catch the eye of a red-headed girl while his mother walks into a different part of the gallery, and the “next instant, a tremendous, earsplitting blast” shakes the room alongside a “black flash, with debris sweeping and twisting around [Theo], and a roar of hot wind” that throws him across the room.
When he comes to, Theo, hurt and traumatised, stumbles about to find himself facing an old man he saw earlier with the red-headed girl, and in a set of strange, almost surreal scenes that take place amidst the wreckage and rubble of the ruined Met, the old man gives Theo a ring and instructs him to take a painting from the wall and take both to “Hobart and Blackwell”. Theo confusedly does as he is told and taking ‘The Goldfinch,’ a beautiful oil painting by Rembrandt’s student, Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, shoves it in a bag and somehow manages to stagger out of the destroyed museum. Amidst all the chaos and fear, no one stops him or thinks to check what he may be carrying, and Theo makes his way home unhindered, waiting, hoping desperately for his mother to be there.
When he finds out that his mother did not survive the blast, Theo names one of his school friends’ parents as temporary guardians. Life with the Barbours is strange, and not just because Theo is still grieving and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Upper East Side society Mrs Barbour is a part of is nothing like Theo’s past life, but he tries to make the most of it, hiding in his bedroom, trying to ignore the jibes of the younger Barbour children who don’t appreciate Theo’s admission into the family or the preferential treatment he’s given out of pity. Theo goes through the motions, dazed and unable to connect to anyone around him until he shows up at Hobart and Blackwell with the ring given to him by the dying man who is found to be Welty Blackwell. Not only does Theo find a connection with Hobie, the surviving half of Hobart and Blackwell, skilled craftsman, restorer of antique furniture and all round affable nice guy, but he also finds the same red-headed girl who so fascinated him right before the attack.
Blackwell’s niece Pippa had been badly hurt but is alive and recuperating. It is in Hobie’s apartment that Theo comes to life — he has found his tribe, as it were, though he keeps the stolen painting a secret, hiding it away from everyone.
Theo’s life in New York, its delicate balance of hiding in plain sight at the Barbour’s versus coming to life at Hobie’s is all transient. Theo knows that his placement with the Barbour’s is not permanent and that authorities are trying to contact both his distant and strangely cold grandparents as well as his runaway father. The day his father does show up is a strange one for Theo; who is this man, with his strange flashy girlfriend Xandra “with an X” who has come to take Theo to quite literally the other end of the country? Las Vegas turns out to be revelatory for Theo, both in terms of finding out who his father is, and in terms of self-discovery.
The Las Vegas of The Goldfinch isn’t all casinos, dancing fountains and miles-long hotel buffets. Theo’s father and Xandra live in a remote real estate development that mostly consists of vacant houses. There are no neighbours to speak of, there is nothing to entertain Theo; even Domino’s won’t deliver pizza this far out. This Vegas, this new, empty world of little parental supervision and no constraints that Theo is alone in, is perfectly set up for the arrival of Boris, the most alive and interesting of Tartt’s characters. Part Polish, part Ukrainian, brash, impulsive, smart and the best (and worst) friend Theo could have, Boris has the greatest influence on him, eventually leading him into a continuous delinquent spiral of drugs, alcohol and petty theft. Tartt’s skill with dialogue is showcased at its best in the scenes between Boris and Theo, their relationship a brilliant look at the friendship between teenage boys with a bond neither will ever truly be able to break.
Theo’s eventual return to New York City and his reunion with Hobie brings the reader into the world of high-end antiques, fraud and art theft. Theo may have left Boris behind but he isn’t able to shake his dependency on drugs and alcohol, though he remains highly functional on the surface. He is not a standard straight-laced protagonist — he is complicated, interesting and has a very vague moral code. He has never been able to deal with the trauma of surviving the bombing, and Tartt makes sure that we are cloistered deep within Theo’s version of the event — we are barely told how many other people died, never told who was behind the attack or exactly how it happened. What is important here is what is important to Theo — in a way, he remains that 13-year-old child with no mother, no real tether, just a very valuable stolen, secret painting that is his last connection to her.
There are readers who were rabid for each of Tartt’s earlier novels, who still remain obsessed by her unique blend of Dickensian readability and literary awareness. Most of them will not be disappointed. The Goldfinch is really quite a feat — keeping a reader’s interest consistently for over 700 pages is in itself a Herculean task. To do it with such aplomb — clearly only a writer of great skill could even come close. The Goldfinch zips along once you give it the undivided attention it deserves and demands. And why wouldn’t you, considering the depth and luxury of Tartt’s language?