The Goldfinch ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction book this year. It’s a contemporary American story with a Dutch painting from the seventeenth century at its core and a central character, one Theodore Decker, for whom chance or fate or luck—whatever you choose to call it—plays a significant role.
Theodore, or “Theo” as he is called, is twelve years old when the story begins. He is with his mother at a New York City art museum (his parents are divorced and his father has long since departed) when a terrorist’s bomb kills his mother and several other people and destroys a large part of the museum. Theo, through circumstance (chance?), narrowly escapes being killed himself.
Right before the blast, Theo’s mother goes off alone to look at something in another part of the museum. Theo is compelled to stay behind because he is intrigued by a young girl with red hair with an old man, possibly her grandfather. (When the blast occurs, Theo doesn’t know right away that his mother is killed but thinks she will have gotten out safely and will wait for him at home.) Theo goes to the aid of the old man and the girl with red hair (the man dies but not before giving Theo a ring he is wearing; the girl is badly injured). This chance meeting (chance again) significantly alters Theo’s future.
In the after-explosion confusion, Theo finds his way out of the wrecked museum alone and is largely ignored by the rescue people. Before he leaves, however, he sees a small, priceless painting, The Goldfinch (that he and his mother had been looking at a short time before), hanging out of its frame. He slips the painting into the school bag he is carrying, in effect stealing it. He doesn’t know why he takes the painting or what he plans to do with it. (Chance makes the thief.)
The Goldfinch is an actual painting by gifted Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, who was a student of Rembrandt’s. Fabritius was killed at age 32 in 1654 when a gunpowder storehouse exploded in Delft, destroying one-quarter of that city. All but a dozen or so of the paintings of Fabritius were destroyed. (These two violent explosions, one real and the other fictional, bookend the painting.)
Finding himself without family or anyone to care for him, Theo remembers a school friend, one Andy Barbour, that he at one time felt close to. The Barbours are a snooty, upper-crust Park Avenue family, but they (rather reluctantly) take Theo in—for the time being, anyway—because he has no place else to go. He shares a room with his old friend Andy Barbour and tries to resume his life the best he can, living without his mother with a strange family. While he is living with the Barbours, he allows the ring that the old man at the museum gave to him to lead him to the home, in another part of the city, of one James Hobart (or “Hobie,” as he is known). Hobie is the partner in the antiques business of the old man killed in the museum blast. He is kind to Theo and begins to introduce him to the antiques business, specifically furniture restoration.
Through Hobie, Theo becomes acquainted with the red-haired girl who made such an impression on him the day of the museum bombing. Her name is Pippa and, when Theo discovers her, she is recovering from her injuries, as is he (his more emotional than physical). Over the years, his obsession for Pippa grows, even though their lives take divergent paths.
When Theo’s good-for-nothing father, Larry, reappears to assume his parental duties, he has a creepy girlfriend in tow named Xandra. (It seems that Larry is interested, above all, in how he might benefit from his late wife’s estate.) Larry and Xandra take Theo out of the Barbours’ home to live with them in Las Vegas.
Theo’s life takes a decided turn for the worse in Las Vegas. His father is volatile and unreliable; Xandra a self-obsessed bitch who is in no way a mother figure. Theo befriends a Russian boy his own age, Boris, who is, at best, a terrible influence on him. Boris leads Theo down a path of illegal drug use, shoplifting, binge drinking, and other disgusting activities that teenagers without parental authority are sometimes left to engage in.
Theo’s father eventually meets his sad end (we saw it coming), causing Theo to take the wrapped-like-a-mummy The Goldfinch (which he has kept hidden in his room all this time) and take a bus to New York City, with Xandra’s tiny dog, Popper.(It seems that Xandra isn’t even responsible enough to care for a small dog.) He ends up at the home/business of Hobie, who was so kind to him when he was younger. Not having anyplace else to go, he lives in a room at Hobie’s house and learns the front end of the antiques business, while Hobie works with the behind-the-scenes restoration.
In a short time, Theo turns the antiques business into a success but not without some shady business dealings on his part that Hobie doesn’t know about. Outwardly he shows all the signs of success (expensive suits, hobnobbing with wealthy antiques patrons), but inwardly he is never really happy (his philosophy of life being that it’s better never to have been born). He begins using drugs heavily and becomes engaged to a frosty society bitch named Kitsey Barbour (even though he secretly pines for Pippa), who just happens to be the daughter of the family who took him in after his mother died.
During these years of growing into young adulthood, Theo believes he has The Goldfinch with him, although he never takes it out anymore and looks at it. He puts the painting, or what he believes is the painting, in a storage locker for the safekeeping of art objects. Hearing of other cases where art thieves receive stiff prison sentences, he is naturally afraid of what will happen to him if it is discovered he has the lost painting. He isn’t even able to explain why he took it in the first place. He would never be able to sell it or own it in the usual sense.
When Theo’s friend Boris from his Las Vegas days shows up in New York (he hadn’t heard from Boris since he left), Boris tells him, much to his surprise, that he (Boris) “stole” the painting from him when they were still high school students in Las Vegas. The wrapped-up article that Theo believes is the painting is, in reality, an old civics book. (“I thought you knew,” says Boris.) It seems that gangsters and high-level drug dealers use stolen art as “collateral” to get financial backing for their enterprises. In trying to recover the painting, Theo is drawn into the shadowy world of art theft.
The problem with the painting (what to do with it, how to turn it in to authorities without winding up in jail, etc.) is eventually resolved for Theo, after many twists and turns and a near-suicidal trip to Amsterdam at Christmas. Boris is such bad news for Theo most of the time but more often than not turns out to be his salvation. He (Boris) is a kind of tarnished, bad angel, who goes recklessly through life in his own way, ignoring all the rules that “good” people follow.
The Goldfinch is an interesting—if overly long—reading experience. It is so long, in fact (771 pages), and reading it requires so much time and effort that the less dedicated reader might give up before he/she begins. That’s not to say that it’s a boring book or that it’s not written in an easy, readable style. It is compulsively readable most of the time and only in the last couple of hundred pages did my interest begin to flag. (The eighty or so pages in Amsterdam seem to be overly drawn out.) When I was wanting the book to finally end, it seemed to me to go on and on and on. It’s a book, though, that if you do undertake to read it, you will feel at the end that you are better and smarter for having done so.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp