The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written novel about Theo Decker and his life after his world is changed by an act of terrorism.
When Theo was 13, he and his mother visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including Theo’s mother’s favorite work, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. While at the exhibit, Theo gets distracted by a redheaded girl and her grandfather — he is mesmerized by the girl and follows her into a room away from his mother. It is then that a terrorist bomb hits the museum, killing many including Theo’s mother.
In the aftermath of the blast, the elderly man (Welton “Welty” Blackwell) gives Theo a ring and appears to point at The Goldfinch painting — Theo, in his confusion and panic, takes the painting out of the museum.
But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells await them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.
Theo went through some dark times after the death of his mother and his recovery from the bombing.
His father had abandoned Theo and his mother the year before, but Theo is determined to stay in Manhattan. He stays with a school friend, Andy Barbour, and his family. The Barbours are wealthy socialites with the typical WASPy problems — Mr. Barbour is medicated for a behavior disorder that is probably manic depression, Mrs. Barbour is cold and distant, the oldest son, Platt, who is away at boarding school and is a huge bully, Andy, Theo’s friend who is a genius with all of the social awkwardness that comes along with it, Kitsey, a snobbish princess, and Toddy, who is the youngest child. He gets along well with them, though he has nightmares from the post-traumatic stress disorder from the bombing.
Theo also returns the ring to the family of Welty — James Hobart, who goes by Hobie, and his redhaired granddaughter, Pippa. Pippa sustained a head injury in the bombing. Theo sits with her and his initial attraction to her grows. Unfortunately, Pippa is being sent away to family in Texas when she recovers from her injuries.
Unfortunately for Theo, his father, Larry, and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up to take him to their home in Las Vegas. Theo doesn’t want to leave the Barbours, but doesn’t really have a choice. Vegas is terrible for Theo — his father and Xandra are not good parents and his father’s source of income is not steady, since he mostly just gambles. Xandra has a Maltese puppy named Popper that is incredibly neglected, except for Theo’s attentions to him. (We’re talking super neglected, to the point where I almost felt worse for the puppy than for Theo at this point. Oops.) At school, Theo meets Boris, who is a Russian-Ukrainian immigrant and is not the best role model for Theo. Together, Boris and Theo drink a lot of alcohol, take a lot of drugs, and skip a lot of school.
Theo is haunted by The Goldfinch. He still has the painting, which was on the news as missing/destroyed in the bombing and is renowned for being one of the only works by Fabritius to survive a gunpowder explosion in 1654. He wraps the painting in bubble wrap and a pillowcase in an attempt to preserve it once he notices the wear that occurs when he looks at it. He is in constant fear of its discovery and the retribution he would face for its theft.
Theo’s dad starts getting friendlier with Theo and tells him he needs his social security number in order to open a savings account for him. He also tries to get Theo to put his money from his mother’s will in the account that Larry would have access to. Luckily, Theo’s lawyer is onto Larry and doesn’t allow for him to steal Theo’s money. It turns out that Larry is in deep with the gambling debts. In his despondency about not getting Theo’s money, he gets drunk and dies in a car accident. Theo knows that he will be sent to a state home, so he steals drugs and money from Xandra and leaves with Popper. Boris begs him to stay another day, but he leaves immediately for New York on a bus.
Once in New York, he sees Mr. Barbour on the street, but Mr Barbour is not on his medication and curses at him. The only other place Theo can think to go is to Hobie’s house, where he is pleased to find Pippa. Pippa tells him that she’s at a boarding school in Switzerland and is only visiting, much to Theo’s chagrin.
Hobie teaches Theo the art of antique restoration, and he eventually becomes a partner in what was once Welty and Hobie’s antiques business. The narrative skips forward eight years, where Pippa is living in London with a boyfriend (which tortures Theo) and Theo and Kitsey Barbour are engaged to marry. Mr. Barbour and Andy died in a boating accident, and Mrs. Barbour has pulled a Mrs. Havisham and has secluded herself in her apartment. Theo has also developed a prescription drug addiction. Theo and Kitsey have many relationship problems, the biggest of which is her continued love for her high school boyfriend, Tom.
Along with restoring antiques, Hobie enjoys creating pieces that are identical to antiques — which Theo has been selling them as legitimate pieces, unbeknownst to Hobie. One of the buyers of the fabricated pieces realizes what he has and attempts to blackmail Theo — he realizes that Theo and Welty were in the room with The Goldfinch and thinks that Theo and Hobie know the whereabouts of the painting. Theo is afraid of the financial repercussions of customers finding out about the fake antiques, the trouble he will be in when authorities discover he has The Goldfinch, and the guilt he feels in betraying Hobie’s trust.
Out of nowhere, Boris appears on the street of Manhattan. He has wealth and renown in the Russian neighborhood (which he does not explain), but he has a confession for Theo — while they were in Las Vegas, Boris stole The Goldfinch from Theo and replaced it with a textbook that was the similar size and weight; because it was so tightly sealed and Theo never looked at it, he had no idea. Over the years, The Goldfinch has been used as collateral to barter for various criminal activities and deals, but Boris feels guilty and vows to return it to Theo. At Theo and Kitsey’s engagement party, Boris approaches Theo with a planfor them to fly to Amsterdam and meet up with the men who have the painting in order to get it back. Theo is overwhelmed when the blackmailer arrives at his and Kitsey’s engagement party, and he agrees to go and leaves without telling anyone that he’s going — he leaves a note of love to Pippa.
Once in Amsterdam, Boris and assorted men take Theo to meet up with the men who have The Goldfinch, but they all have guns (besides Theo). At the meeting, they attack the men and steal the painting; however, agents fo the dealers finds them and there is a shootout, in which Boris is shot in the arm, Theo shoots a man, and the painting is stolen back.
Theo goes back to his hotel, devastated, and takes a ton of drugs. His cell phone is dead, so he can’t get in touch with Boris, he thinks he is going to be arrested for shooting and killing the agent, and he realizes that he doesn’t have his passport — he left it in the car with Boris. He contemplates suicide when, miraculously, Boris shows up at the hotel. He tells Theo that he has saved the day — he called the art recovery police on the agents, and they have been arrested and The Goldfinch has been recovered. Even better, Boris received a reward for the painting’s return and he graciously shares the reward with Theo.
Theo returns to New York and is greeted by a very upset Hobie. Hobie has been made aware of the sale of the fabricated antiques, so Theo confesses to everything, beginning with the day of the art museum and The Goldfinch. Hobie confesses that The Goldfinch was Welty’s favorite painting, too.
Theo travels the world to buy back the fabricated antiques. Pippa has told him that though she loves him, they can never be together because their character flaws and their shared experience of the bombing makes them too similar to be a safe and effective couple. Theo wonders how much of his experiences are due to fate and how much are due to his character.He realizes that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
The writing of The Goldfinch is beautiful. I read this book over Christmas break but have not been able to stop thinking about it. The story can be described as a bildungsroman, but it is so much more than that. The novel discusses the preservation of beautiful things, both items and people, as well as how much power fate has — as well as the power of our parents and their presence (or lack thereof) in our lives. Theo loses his mother early in his life and fourteen years later he observes that “things would have turned out better if she had lived.”
There are plot points that are eyeroll inducing (especially the deus ex machina in the climax — Boris called the cops, really? Really, that’s how it’s resolved after an epic shootout) but the story of Theo’s decline into teenage delinquency and his fight out was mesmerizing to read. I’m also a sucker for a good mom story. I’m very close with my mother and even the thought of losing my mother, even as an adult, makes me slightly hyperventilate.