I started this novel in January, and read it in fits and starts throughout the year. Oddly, I found that once I had read a few pages I did find it very compelling, and would read several chapters in a sitting, wanting to find out what happened on the next page. But if I got distracted and put it down, I could happily leave it for months without feeling the need to pick it up and see how the story progressed. I wondered if it was because I didn’t care enough about the characters, but I really quite liked Theo Decker, for all his flaws, and I loved his mentor-turned-business partner, Hobie.
Anyway, for whatever reason, it took me ages to read this. But I really enjoyed it – as I knew I would, because Donna Tartt is a masterful writer who creates very real, believable characters and stories out of fantastic, extraordinary situations. In this case, a terrorist attack at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which changes the life of the 13-year-old Theodore Decker and creates an enduring connection between him and an intriguing red-haired girl he sees moments before the blast, Pippa. It also brings The Goldfinch, a priceless seventeenth century masterwork by the Dutch painter Fabritius, into his path. From then on, the painting’s fate becomes intertwined with the unstable trajectory of Theo’s life.
Theo is traumatised by the events in the museum, and devastated by the loss of his mother, who dies in the explosion. As he grows up, he shows a recklessness, a devil-may-care attitude that flourishes with a lack of parental care, as well as a kind of apathy or willingness to be led that regularly gets him into trouble. Eventually he makes his way back to New York, to the steadying influence of Hobie, an antiques restorer and dealer who keeps a shop full of beautiful things, where he finds comfort in the soothing, painstaking work of restoration.
He is a mess for most of the novel, which shows in heartbreaking detail the lasting effects of a traumatic event. We know he can never be ‘ok’, whatever that might be, and his life is saved from becoming a complete car crash by the regulating hands of those around him – his schoolfriend Andy, Hobie, Andy’s socialite mother Mrs. Barbour. He seems to struggle to make decisions or know what he wants: the one constant in his life is the painting, yet it is also the painting that stops him moving on from his past.
As a teenager, Theo seems far more messed up than anyone around him, suffering the mental anguish of reliving his experiences, the uncertainty and dislocation of having his anticipated future whisked away, and the unerring, steady pulse of anxiety associated with his possession of The Goldfinch. But as he gets older, it emerges that many of those around him are suffering similar mental struggles, unseen and unspoken, self-medicating with alcohol or resorting to becoming a recluse.
The Goldfinch begins with a tense scene in an Amsterdam Hotel, where the older Theo’s air of hopelessness is palpable, before taking us back 14 years to an equally dramatic set of events in New York. From there, it works slowly through Theo’s life, which is punctuated with dramas that seem to pale in comparison to his experience of the attack in New York – presumably the point, as we, like Theo, have become similarly desensitised and un-shockable after the opening events. But the adrenalin-fuelled, fever-pitch finale takes things to a different level, jolting you into a high-octane world of car chases and near misses, where you share Theo’s wonderment at just how he ended up there. It’s a great ending and a satisfying conclusion to a novel of such epic proportions.