New Yorker Theo Decker survives a shocking tragedy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that takes the life of his mother when he is only 13 years old.
At the behest of a dying stranger, Theo picks up “The Goldfinch,” made in 1654 by Carel Fabritius, unintentionally beginning a chain of events that propels him into a hectic and dangerous future unknown to him until much later in life.
After his mother’s death, Theo is taken in by various friends and family. The situations range from abusive, neglectful, indifferent and scattered but loving. No matter where he currently resides, Theo experiences constant anxiety about his painting, his one treasured secret that simultaneously haunts and sustains him after his mother’s death.
Throughout “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, Theo’s world is made up of just a few key people who appear and disappear through happenstance reminiscent of Dickens. Characters feature heavily for a short time, vanish suddenly and then pop up later to upturn his story with fateful occurrences and new revelations.
The cast of characters that surround Theo is small but colorful. It includes an affluent Upper West Side friend’s family; an alcoholic father; a drug-addled, vodka-loving Russian best friend; a frail, red-haired young lady he loves from the moment they meet; an annoying little dog he protects; and a friend, Hobie, who protects him.
His childhood is sporadic and disjointed as he traverses from a loving home in New York to a crazy, drugged-half-unconscious existence in Vegas and then back to New York and eventually Amsterdam.
Theo’s character seems to teeter between an aptitude for beauty, love and accomplishment and his pivotal mistakes. He is able to recognize great art; he loves to help Hobie with the craft of restoring priceless furniture, and he desperately seeks out love from those around him.
But Theo is struggling to survive the only way he knows how, so he makes plenty of bad decisions. Whether they are through fear, anxiety or need, he often does the wrong thing even when he sets out to do the right one.
Theo is no bright, innocent protagonist for a reader to worship. He is a young man shattered forever the day he lost his mother and acquired his secret. When he finally attempts to put himself back together, it turns out to be a long trek full of violence, fear and unpredictability.
He is irrevocably shaped by the events of his past. Paranoid, anxious, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and an addiction to drugs, he is stuck emotionally within his childhood self, yearning for everything and everyone he was attached to as an adolescent, unable to move on.
Tartt paints Theo’s sharp and flawed existence with gorgeous prose and incredibly vivid imagery. Her writing, whether describing a dirty drug dealer’s hovel or the snow glistening on a street lamp, is detailed and evocative. The world she creates sparkles even in its darkest corners.
“The Goldfinch” leaves us wondering if maybe our lives are truly fated – if it could be, as her character says, that our “pattern is preset.”
Maybe even through many mistakes, great feats that are meant to be will happen.
Maybe a great many wrongs can make one glorious, fateful right.