This nearly 800-page novel is a revelation – it is one of the more complex literary works I’ve read in a long time and proved impossible to put down. The Goldfinch tells the story of precocious 13-year-old Theo Decker, who lives alone with his mother in New York City until their unplanned visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the day terrorists decide to blow the museum up. Theo’s mother dies in the disaster, but Theo survives and manages to extricate himself and return home with a small but precious 1654 painting—“The Goldfinch”—in his schoolbag. And thus begins Theo’s excruciating journey as he wends his way towards adulthood.
Tartt takes us first into the home of a wealthy upper-class New York family which provides a refuge of sorts for the traumatized young teen, but which is unable to give him either the closure or the love he so urgently needs. The next phase of Theo’s life begins when his drunken gambler of a father who had earlier abandoned his wife and son, swoops in and takes Theo off to a nearly abandoned neighborhood in Las Vegas where he and his cocaine-addicted girlfriend live. Theo’s life remains utterly derailed and, except for the hidden painting of the little captive goldfinch which is his only emotional link to his mother, he remains a lost soul. That is, until the equally lost Boris enters the picture, and becomes both Theo’s soul-mate and soul-corrupter, or what one reviewer dubbed his “Artful Dodger.”
Theo eventually returns to New York and attaches himself to the antique furniture store whose elderly owner had died at the museum in Theo’s embrace and whose solitary partner Hobie becomes Theo’s surrogate family. However, now a young adult with a serious addiction, Theo has learned how to work financial scams using the antique store as cover, which eventually draw him into the criminal underworld and where Boris re-enters his life. The reader continually hopes for Theo’s redemption—first through Hobie and then with the now-adult daughter of the wealthy family which had once sheltered him—but each time Theo rises, he tragically falls.
All of Tartt’s characters are as finely wrought–and as dramatically flawed–as one could hope to find in any Dicken’s masterpiece, and the many lives of Theo are as painfully but exquisitely portrayed as “The Goldfinch” painting which serves as the continuous thread that runs throughout Theo’s odyssey. If there is a fault in this novel, it comes in the final pages as a sort of postscript, with Tartt’s over-indulgence in what I would dub literary navel-gazing. Mostly forgiveable after the sublime writing of the previous 750 pages.