By Donna Tartt
Theo Decker is grief stricken. He loses his mother, in a bomb blast in a New York museum, and with her he loses that ‘daily, commonplace happiness’ he rarely finds again in his life. But as he loses his mother, he gains a 17th century painting - Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. A dying old man entrusts this painting, saved from the blast, to the thirteen year old’s safekeeping. But Theo, for reasons unknown to even himself (perhaps it is the last remnant of his mother’s life, perhaps he just couldn’t let go of such beauty) keeps it to himself. He moves cities and homes, but the painting accompanies him, occupying a corner of his mind that provides him joy and wonder, even as life around him turns upside down.
Theo carries his painting and his grief with him through a temporary home with his school friend Andy’s family in New York, through Las Vegas where his gambler and alcoholic father takes him, through New York again, this time with Hobie, the dying old man’s business partner in an antique furniture business. There are unforgettable characters in all of these places. Andy’s distant mother, Mrs. Barbour, who gives Theo the closest semblance of parenthood after his mother’s death; his own father, addicted and so completely self-absorbed that even Theo, desperate for a parent figure, can see through every single selfish act of his; and Hobie, a bumbling, giant of a man, living through grief himself, spending his time in his shop’s basement, polishing and restoring lovely pieces of furniture, creating beauty and providing Theo with a career, a home and a desperately missing father-figure. And then there is Boris. Glorious, unfettered Boris, Theo’s only friend in Vegas. Speaking Ukrainian and Russian, drinking vodka and popping pills, Boris takes Theo on a ride from which he finds it hard to get off. You know Boris is that terrible influence that is ultimately going to take Theo down with him. But along with the alcohol and the drugs, Boris gives Theo a taste of friendship he has never known before, and of a life lived careless and free, unafraid. It is an addictive closeness, even a destructive one. But each time you feel Theo falling, life drags him back up. First, out of Vegas on the death of his father, into a saner life with Hobie in New York. And then, with destructive Boris back in his life as a grown man, as you feel Theo’s life spiralling beyond control with a lost painting, gangsters and guns, he is once again resurrected, almost miraculously. At the end, you are left with the feeling that however self-destructive Theo turns, there is a beauty and rightness to life that keeps bringing him back to even keel.
It is a wonderful book. Donna Tartt’s writing is beautiful and evocative - places, feelings and people come alive (“By contrast Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built epoxy-glued version of the world.” or describing Mrs. Barbour “when we looked at each other it seemed that the whole past was redefined and brought into focus by this moment, clear as glass, a complexity of stillness that was rainy afternoons in spring, a dark chair in the hallway, the light-as-air touch of her hand on the back of my head.”). Tartt has created one of those grand narratives - with outsized characters and plots - but which in the end is a hopeful story. A story that says however wicked the world can get, in the end, all will be well.