Theo is about to be suspended from school when he and his mother, on their way to an appointment with the principal, stop in at the Metropolitan Museum. There is an exhibit of Dutch paintings. His mother knows quite a lot about them,waxes rhapsodic about some, especially the Goldfinch.
Just as the two have separated so that she can see The Anatomy Lesson again, and he can buy some postcards, when he is transfixed by a red headed girl and a man we later learn is her guardian and uncle, named Welty, the museum is bombed by a terrorist. In the chaos, Theo is knocked unconscious, and comes to, to discover carnage, and the red haired girls uncle near at hand, dying, talking nonsense, needing someone to help him through his last moments.
The Goldfinch was painted by Fabritius, who was killed, and most of his work destroyed, in an explosion of an arsenal. So that is one parallel to the boy Theo losing his mother in a violent explosion, yet Theo gains the painting, which at the direction of Welty, he packs in a nylon bag and takes with him.
His father had disappeared months before, and there is at first no way of contacting him. Theo is about to be snatched up in the foster care system when he claims friendship with a boy named Andy. Andy’s family, the Barbours, are well to do and live on Park Ave, with their rigid sets of rules and passive kindness. After several months of this life, Theo’s father turns up to claim him, but we aren’t sure if he is really after any valuables his estranged wife, now dead, might have left lying around her apartment, which has remained sealed since the explosion.
Theo’s move to Las Vegas and his lawless drunken teenhood centers around his friendship with Boris, a Ukrainian wastrel with an even more negligent father than Theo’s. Boris is unwashed, uneducated, barely fed, and already alcoholic when Theo meets him (is he 13 or 14?). The two boys spend lots of time together. Boris teaches Theo how to steal, how to drink, eventually how to take all sorts of drugs. It is one of the most complex relationships in the book. Both boys are only children, so they bond like brothers. It is hard to believe in any of the subsequent opposite sex relationships with women. Theo’s heart belongs to Boris.
The plot of the book is about what becomes of the painting that Theo spirits out of the Met when the bomb hit. He takes care of it, and it stands in for any kind of permanence in his life. After a few years in Las Vegas, he journeys back to New York to live with Hobie.
Hobie is the partner of Welty, the dying man who suggested to Theo that he preserve the Goldfinch painting when flames were licking at his heels. Hobie is the great good man Theo can look up to, learn from, rely on, a trusted adult, solid and respectable. Mrs. Barbour is also a steady secure grown up in his life, someone sensible and caring in an aloof way, someone who appreciates Theo’s friendship with her son Andy, a geeky reject who had no friends until Theo turned up.
Back in New York again, Theo works as partner to Hobie, restoring antiques. Theo is the business side, and Hobie performs the carpentry miracles of restoration to old furnishings that bring in high prices. There are endless descriptions of furniture which wore me out a bit. Shady dealings with less than authentic work being sold for extravagant prices become part of Theo’s modus. Hobie doesn’t seem to notice.
And there is the Goldfinch, now stored in a temperature controlled storage unit. For years, Pippa, the girl he claims to truly love (like Charlie Brown he pines for the girl with red hair) stops by now and then. They share their survival of the bomb,their loss of their beloved guardians.
But the Barbours reclaim his loyalty when he becomes engaged to Kitsey, Andy’s sister, and Mrs. Barbour is able to recover from her own deep loss when Theo is around. Boris resurfaces and all hell breaks loose. How to pay back all those people Theo has been selling fakes to. How to restore the painting to the museum world it belongs to. Lots of loose ends to tie up. It does take a while to pull it off.
I spent the extra time I had to spend on this book’s excessive writing because I had to find out what happened. It is a remarkable feat to have a painting be a protagonist in a novel, and Tartt has created a fascinating story. The characters are complex. The settings are beautifully described, especially that woozy feeling of surviving a catastrophe, and the lost world pictures of Las Vegas’ suburban failures. Tartt is trying to say something important about art and love and life. But at times she bogs down in detail, and can’t seem to get to the point of what she’s trying to say. Then when she does, she repeats it, or re-spins it in ways less interesting.
There is so much prose written about taking drugs — so many characters addicted to alcohol and narcotics– that I wonder how the author learned the ways people get lost in narcotic addiction, how she learned about the antiques business, Amsterdam’s underworld, and many other things. It reminds me of some other modern novels I have read that included all of the research the author discovered in the writing of the book, even the bits that don’t advance the story.
Part of my problem is that I was reading the book on my phone. I became obsessed with where I was in terms of finishing. It just took too damn long to get through all those pages. I don’t know if restoring furniture is actually a convincing trope for the meaning of life. I grew tired of furniture. I didn’t believe in Kitsey. Much as I admired the writing, when it was good it was very very good, but I also resented the length, because I am not sure it was necessary.