In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s hefty, Dickensian bildungsroman, the Tartt Corollary to the Trees and Rocks Axiom might be “Chase your character up a tree, throw rocks at him, then vaporize the ground beneath the entire forest.” It makes for painful, but compelling reading.
The target of Tartt’s sadism is thirteen-year-old Theo Decker who, in the first chapter, experiences the worst loss a child can suffer: His adored, artistic mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum. Theo, badly injured himself, tries to help an older man in the rubble, a man he had observed before the explosion exploring the gallery with a girl about Theo’s age. The man gives Theo a ring and an address, and, delirious and dying, instructs Theo to rescue a certain painting from the ruins. Severely concussed, the boy flees the disaster scene with the priceless painting, unwittingly becoming an art thief.
All backup systems fail. Theo’s alcoholic, estranged father cannot be located. His one set of living grandparents want so little to do with him that they halfheartedly offer to put him up in a motel near their house in Maryland, speaking to him only through a social worker. Threatened with foster care, Theo remembers that his old friend Andy Barbour, the scion of an aristocratic Park Avenue family, might be able to help him.
This looks like a lucky break. The Barbours are fantastically wealthy, and living with them allows Theo to stay in the city he loves and in the private school to which his mother struggled to send him. If Andy is clinically depressed, his eldest brother sadistic, his younger sister and brother viciously snippy, Mrs. Barbour more like an Olympian deity than a mother, and Mr. Barbour oddly detached from reality, Theo is at least safe, warm and well-fed.
This respite from disaster gives Theo the opportunity to track down the address given to him by the dying man, which turns out to be Hobart & Blackwell, a furniture restoration and antique shop owned by the old gentleman and his partner. James Hobart, known as Hobie, is the novel’s only uncomplicatedly wholesome soul. Theo falls in love with the the shop. In the apartment above, kind, unworldly Hobie takes care of his dead partner’s niece, Pippa, the girl Theo had seen in the museum. The girl was severely injured, both physically and emotionally, in the blast that killed her guardian and Theo’s mother. Theo also falls in love with her. At Hobart & Blackwell, though increasingly paranoid about the painting he has stolen (and is too terrified to return), Theo finally feels welcome.
Of course, Tartt cannot allow this comforting state of affairs to continue.
Theo is snatched from safety by the sudden appearance of his handsome, charming father and his father’s girlfriend, Xandra, who whisk him away from New York and into a nearly abandoned development in the desert outskirts of Las Vegas. In their empty house, Theo is protected from the elements, but utterly neglected–unfed, unsupervised, unloved–forbidden, like Oliver Twist, from asking for more.
Desperately missing New York, looking for something like love and anything like family, Theo forms a close bond with a brilliant, streetwise Russian boy named Boris, as neglected as Theo, but more abused and far less innocent. The boys drink, take drugs, steal, and talk about everything in the world. Boris is philosophical, sentimental, and free of conscience, but loves Theo like a brother and tries to teach him how to survive in a heartless world. In his drunken, drugged, hungry stupor, Theo begins to learn.
Grabbing the painting and Xandra’s little dog, he flees Las Vegas, returning to New York. Theo learns (and loves) the furniture restoration business, attends school, and pines for Pippa, but can never feel at ease. Every source of connection and stability in his life vanishes. Theo is ashamed to reconnect with the Barbours. And his terrible secret about the painting he has grown to love and fear stands between him and Hobie. Afraid that Hobie will be punished if the art theft is ever discovered, Theo keeps emotional distance from the only adult who could have helped him. He can never allow himself an unguarded moment. He is torturously lonely.
The plot moves very quickly in the last hundred pages or so, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but Boris returns to Theo’s life with shocking news and an insane plan, which Theo, always Boris’s acquiescent follower, cannot help going along with, hoping it will finally free him of the painting and the burden of its secret forever.
Children and adolescents need security and guidance to develop intellectually, emotionally, and morally. Tartt’s refusal to grant Theo a moment of safety creates a character study of a person trying to discover one pure thing within himself to hold onto, and one person outside of himself he can rely on. The adult Theo is eager to make amends with the world and build an honest, satisfying life, but he has no example to follow. Hobie’s absent-minded, artless virtue proves too interior and naïve to protect him. The Barbours’ outward perfection is as fragile as fortune and sanity. And the one sturdy, joyful person who could have taught Theo everything he needs to know is murdered in her favorite place on earth in the first few pages.
The Goldfinch has been on the bestseller lists since it debuted in October, and is already a hit with book clubs in hardcover. With a young male main character, it’s among those rare bestselling novels, like Water for Elephants, that appeals equally to men and women. Those who dislike it have complained mostly about its length: at 776 pages, it is a bit of a trek, and some have found Theo’s epic misfortunes difficult to persevere with. The sections of the story in which Boris makes Theo’s decisions can be dark and hopeless.
But those who long for happy endings will probably not be disappointed. The book concludes with Theo’s meditation on the meaning of art, and while some readers found it unnecessary and cerebral, I felt Tartt had earned it. Theo has been carrying this painting with him in every sense since the first chapter, and deserved the chance to tell us what he thinks it means.
Almost every reviewer has called The Goldfinch “Dickensian”. In Dickens’ Christian universe, wickedness is punished and good, ultimately, rewarded. The young main character, like Pip or David Copperfield, is chastened by hard circumstance and presumed to live virtuously-ever-after.
Theo inhabits no such morally stable universe. He wants what he’s always wanted: love, security, meaning, aesthetic satisfaction, and peace of mind. By the end of this stupendously brilliant novel, Theo has learned, at the very least, where not to look for any of it.