What does it mean to love something? Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is mostly about love and what we will do to have it, in all it’s many manifestations. This story is not about right or wrong, good choices or bad, at it’s heart, The Goldfinch is about what we will do to hold near the things we love.
The Goldfinch is a wild (though sometimes overlong) ride through a life of frivolous delinquency, unintentional criminality, lapses in honesty, breaches of ethics, and misunderstood attractions. For Theo Decker, there is no thing so awful that he wouldn’t do it to keep the thing he believes he loves the most, Carel Fabritius’ painting of The Goldfinch.
From young adolescence Theo’s life staggers from one bad scenario to another. At the impressionable age of thirteen, he is thrust into challenging circumstances that irreversibly drag him into a life that buffets him about like a kite in a storm. Decisions are made for him, few of which make any real sense. He’s never offered the opportunity to make thoughtful or calculated choices and most often he is either dragged into less than optimal family situations, or he must make lightning quick decisions based on faulty information that lead him to increasingly shoddy habitats and relationships.
Theo’s path through life hinges on one unforgettable day when, due to his burgeoning delinquency, his mother is called in for a parent conference. Together, they wander through the New York City streets, wasting time until their appointment. Instead of getting breakfast as he hopes, Theo’s mom decides to take a quick spin through the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see her favorite painting, Fabritius’ small, yet powerful image of a chained bird. In a matter of mere seconds, Theo’s mother is killed in a terrorist bombing. In the confusion of the blast, Theo comforts a dying art patron and is offered both a signet ring and the Goldfinch painting. Remarkably, Theo successfully escapes the building with the priceless canvas in his possession. The signet ring leads him to the man who ultimately raises and parents Theo, guides him to adulthood and also introduces him to the enigmatic and ethereal object of his affections, Pippa, whom Theo glimpses for the first time, just moments before the explosion.
In the aftermath of the bombing, we follow Theo as he moves into a Park Avenue apartment with his best friend Andy’s family, then is uprooted unexpectedly by his estranged father and his new girlfriend, who drag him to Las Vegas. It is in Vegas that we meet Boris, a Ukrainian expat who will become Theo’s best friend, closest confidant and defender, but who will also betray Theo in a most deeply hurtful and unexpected way.
After his father’s untimely death in Vegas, Theo returns to New York as an orphaned runaway and loses all contact with Boris for many years. Theo is taken in by James Hobart, affectionately called Hobie, the partner of the art patron Theo had comforted during the hysteria after the bombing. Hobie teaches Theo how to restore furniture, evaluate antiques and paintings and the two become partners in the antiques shop Hobie has been neglecting since his former partner’s death. Running throughout the story is Theo’s obsession with Pippa, another wayward child whom Hobie has taken under his wing. She too has suffered great loss in her life and bears both external and internal scars from the bombing. It is to Pippa that Theo transfers the love and affection he can no longer give his mother.
The Goldfinch is a long and winding tale, almost Dickensian in scope, with many characters, many unfortunate events, loves lost and desires unceasing. Donna Tartt’s writing is absolutely accessible to any reader, and though there are many pages to be read, it never feels like a slog and coming to the end may even evoke a sense of sadness, if only because it cannot go on longer. It would be a stretch to call Theo Decker a hero, but his heart and his love are heroic and The Goldfinch frames most eloquently the valuable lesson that art can represent many different things to many different people, but unless it is shared, it’s true value may ultimately be lost.