The painting entitled “The Goldfinch” was created by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in 1654. To my untrained eye, it is hardly an exceptional work of art. However, author Donna Tartt is far more perceptive. She took the image of a little bird perched on a box and used it as the focal point for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Intertwining two plots, the emotional connection people experience with great works of art and a modern day “Coming of Age” tale, Tartt created her very own masterpiece.
Using the flashback technique and writing in the first person, Tartt delivers her story through protagonist Theo Decker, age 27. Now hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel, Decker recalls how it all began. He was a 13-year-old trouble maker, living with his mother, Audrey, in New York City. His alcoholic father walked out of their lives years ago. Theo was suspended from school on that fateful day when his mother, a lover of fine art, dragged him to the Whitney Museum. But he found a red-haired girl in the crowd of tourists more interesting than his mother’s diatribe about the Dutch Masters. By chance, the girl — accompanied by her grandfather — stopped in front of the picture his mother most wanted to see, the one she adored since childhood.
Decker explains, “It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat compact way it tucked down inside itself — its brightness, its alert watchful expression — made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.” Through this passage, Tartt reveals Decker’s intense admiration for his mother.
Then, in a flash caused by a terrorist bomb, his mother is gone. Picking himself off the floor, Decker attempts to find the exit, now obscured by a cloud of smoke and dust, when he stumbles onto the elderly gentleman, who keeps calling for “Pippa.” Looking around, Decker is unable to find the girl, but bends down to help the man, offering him a drink of water. Suddenly, the man points to “The Goldfinch,” now covered in ash. “Take it,” he says. For reasons unknown to him, Decker obeys, placing the painting into a shopping bag he finds among the rubble. Seconds before the man dies, he slips a gold ring off his finger, hands it to Decker, and tells him, “Take it to Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell.”
The teenager’s life quickly spirals downward, even though he avoids becoming a ward of the state when a wealthy family, the Barbours, takes him into their home. A few weeks later, Decker looks up “Hobart and Blackwell” in the telephone directory, only to discover it is an antique business in the Village. Ringing the bell, he’s greeted by James (Hobie) Hobart, an extremely tall man wearing “a rich paisley robe.” He tells Decker the ring belonged to his business partner, Welty Blackwell.
The authorities told Hobart that Blackwell “died instantly” in the explosion. Obviously, Decker knows they lied, and breaks down sobbing because he realizes they may have also lied about the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death.
Hobart surmises, “You’re the boy, the one who lost his mother. Pippa has been asking about you ever since she regained consciousness.” She suffered a head injury that left her partially paralyzed, and is now recuperating in a dark room at the back of the antique shop. This encounter is the start of a life-long friendship among Pippa, Decker and Hobart.
Within a few months, Decker’s father, now sober for 51 days, shows up on the Barbours’ doorstep, with plans to take his son to Las Vegas. Once there, Decker befriends Boris Pavlikovsky, an Eastern European hoodlum. From this point on, the story reads like “The Catcher in the Rye” on steroids; or, more accurately, on a multitude of mind-altering substances, with endless scenes of debauchery.
My biggest criticism of this novel is that Tartt overdid this part of Decker’s teenage angst. It is pure overkill, which actually detracts from the main message of her story. Eliminating half of these passages would shorten this lengthy 770-page book by about 200 pages, and would make it more appealing to readers and teachers who might want to recommend it to students.
In the artificial world of Las Vegas, “The Goldfinch” becomes a tenuous connection to Decker’s mother and his past life. He protects it and shields it from prying eyes, only unwrapping it when he is alone. Unfortunately, his street smarts are nothing compared to those of Boris, whose father is a member of the Russian mafia.
Now, 14 years later, Decker is attempting to stay one step ahead of bill collectors and the “art-recovery team.” They know the masterpiece wasn’t destroyed in the bombing, and Decker is the only suspect left on their list. He certainly could have returned it days, weeks or even months after the explosion, claiming he was in shock when he removed it from the museum wall. But, at age 27, he is unlikely to avoid prosecution.
Tartt weaves numerous literary and artistic references into this novel, but her major theme is the importance of the bonds we form with others. First, the connection between parent and child, whether good or bad, which certainly can aid or hinder our ability to become worth-while adults. Next, there are those we choose to associate with, friends and partners, who will bring out the best or worst in each of us.
While everyone will benefit from reading this book, Tartt’s message is directed to those under 30. Don’t expect a neat and tidy ending. Fate has been cruel to Decker, and he still questions: “Why am I made the way I am?” But he has matured enough to realize beauty still surrounds him. He sees it in the love he received from his mother, the kindness friends have bestowed on him and in a tiny masterpiece painted centuries ago — “The Goldfinch.”