The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

  Summary (Amazon): Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: amazing

So I have been reading this behemoth of a book since the 4th of July. It’s been on my shelf waiting to be read since last summer, but I haven’t had the time to set aside to actually do it. The book recommendation came from a random place. While we were on vacation last summer, we took a sunset ride on a sailboat. Also on this boat ride was a family who we have dubbed “the best family ever”. Because honestly, they seemed so great. The parents worked for the School of Rock, which is actually a real place, not just the Jack Black movie. They had 2 biological college age daughters and one adopted (also college age) daughter, and all were amazingly well-spoken and just very cool. One of the daughters was an avid reader and recommended this book as a must-read.

Maybe her opinion biased me, but I really liked this book, and I thought it was worth the time spent.

Theo Decker lives with his mom; his dad left them and has not made contact. Theo is a smart kid who isn’t applying himself, and he finds himself suspended from school. He and his mother have to go into the school to discuss, and en route, they stop into the Met along the way when it starts to rain. Theo’s mother studied art history at NYU and wants to see a painting that is at the museum, The Goldfinch by Fabritius. It was her favorite as a child, and the tale of how Fabritius died in a fire in Delft with most of his artwork makes it even more rare. While at the museum, Theo finds himself mesmerized by another patron, a pale red haired girl with a man who looks to be her grandfather. When they are approaching the time to go, Theo’s mother tells him to meet her in the gift shop, but she wants to go back and get a look at another painting on display. An explosion occurs in the museum, and when Theo awakes, he has no idea what has happened. He realizes that the grandfather is in the room with him, and is struggling to stay alive. Theo finds some water, gives it to the man, and stays with him until he passes. The man gives Theo his ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell and ring the green bell. In his delirium, he also suggests to Theo that he take The Goldfinch (which has fallen from the wall in the blast) away from here, which Theo does.

Theo is unsure of his mother’s whereabouts, but when he exits the museum, he sees that they are preparing for an additional explosion. The plan is to always meet back at the house so he heads there expecting that she will eventually return. But she doesn’t. Eventually child protective services arrives. They ask him about his father, but he doesn’t know his father’s whereabouts. They allow him to go to stay with his friend Andy’s family until his grandparents or father can be located. Andy’s family is wealthy, but Andy is the nerdy odd duck of the bunch with his siblings Platt who is older and bullies him and the younger popular Kitsie and Toddy. As best as he can due to his traumatic experiences, Theo is happy at the Barbours, however, once he recovers somewhat, he remembers about the old man and his ring. He tracks down Hobart and Blackwell, rings the green bell, and he finds that the old man was Blackwell. Hobart “Hobie” is still there and explains a bit of the history. Hobie and “Welty” (Blackwell) were business partners dealing predominately in antique furniture. Hobie was the craftsman, and Welty was the salesman. Theo immediately likes Hobie, and is even more drawn to the shop when he finds out that the red haired girl from the museum is also there recovering until she heads to Texas with her aunt. In the meantime, Theo and Pippa become good friends.

One fateful day however, his father arrives with his new girlfriend Xandra. Theo is going with them to Las Vegas. Xandra works in a casino, and Theo’s father is a “professional” gambler. In general, Theo hates his life in Las Vegas, the only bright spot being his friendship with Boris, a Ukranian boy in a similar situation (no mother, deadbeat father). With no attentive parents, the two slip into a pattern of drugs, alcohol, and reckless abandon. They aren’t the only ones. Theo’s father is in trouble with gambling debts. Thugs are showing up at the house when Theo is home, and his father even tries to convince Theo to contact his mother’s lawyer for some of his inheritance. (He can’t withdraw it.) Theo’s father gets drunk and kills himself in a car accident. (This section in Las Vegas went on too long for my taste.)

Once Xandra is passed out after the funeral, Boris and Theo steal her money and drugs, and Theo leaves to head back to New York with the painting and Xandra’s dog who she never took care of anyway. When he finally gets back into New York, dirty and exhausted, he sees Mr. Barbour in Central Park. Mr. Barbour is off of his medication and scares Theo to the point that he has no interest in returning there or even with getting in touch with Andy. He heads to Hobie’s and asks if he can stay. Hobie agrees. Pippa is there again, on break from her school for broken girls, and they reconnect. Eventually Xandra calls and tells Theo that he’s just like his father. However, CPS allows Theo to stay with Hobie while he attends an early college program that he tested into.

The book then skips ahead eight years. We learn that Theo never did that well in school, and eventually returned to help Hobie at the store, taking the place of Welty when the past due notices begin to come in. Theo is wrought with problems. He still has The Goldfinch which stresses him constantly although it’s now in a storage unit. He is addicted to drugs, and he has also taken to selling counterfeit furniture to get the business into the black. He bumps into Platt on the street and becomes reconnected with the Barbours. However, Andy and Mr. Barbour died in a boating accident a few months prior. Theo agrees to dine with the rest of the family at their place since Mrs. Barbour no longer leaves to reconnect, and soon a relationship develops between Theo and Kitsey, although for both, it’s more a matter of appearance. Theo still loves Pippa (who has a boyfriend she lives with in London), and Kitsey is emotionally detached.

One of the people who Theo sold phony merchandise to has figured it out, and he confronts Theo. Theo returns his money plus some, hoping to buy it back and have it settled. However, Lucius Reeve has other ideas. He doesn’t cash the check or return the furniture, and one day confronts Theo with a thought. Lucius believes that Theo stole The Goldfinch from the museum since he was in that room when it was bombed, and Lucius is not above blackmailing Theo and Hobie for it. Obviously Theo is panicking since he still has The Goldfinch in a paid-in-cash storage unit. However, he can’t go check on it without being tracked. Theo’s anxiety is getting the best of him between the fraudulent furniture sales, Lucius Reeve and The Goldfinch and his upcoming wedding to Kitsey with all the parties and schmoozing that accompany it. He takes some time away from her to go see a movie, but ends up wandering around the city with a plan to find drugs. What he does find…is Boris!

It’s not clear what Boris has been up to or what his job actually entails, but it’s presumed to be a bit shady. (No one expected any differently.) In a surprise twist however, Boris reveals that many years ago when they lived in Las Vegas, Theo was blasted and showed Boris the painting. And Boris as a teenage joke, stole it. He meant to give it back, but Theo left in such a hurry, he wasn’t able to. Eventually Boris sells it, and he tells Theo that he will get it back. The pair go visit an associate of Boris’s who doesn’t really know what happened to it, however, through the behavior of the associate’s girlfriend during the meeting, Boris pieces together that her brother is the one who has it.

Boris makes an appearance at the end of Theo’s engagement party (where an associate of Mr. Reeves’ has been threatening him) and tells Theo to pack because they have a lead. Theo and Boris head to Amsterdam through separate routes and reconvene upon arrival. Theo is the American buyer, and they go to the meeting place where there are only 2 people waiting for them. They overtake the men, take the painting, and think they have made a clean getaway. However, a young boy in the restaurant saw what happened and gets the others. Boris and Theo are stopped on the way back to the hotel and a shoot out occurs. Boris is injured in the attack, but the big shock is that Theo shoots and kills one of the men. Boris keeps his cool in the situation. He sends Theo back to the hotel to await his call, and presumably he goes to take care of his arm.

Theo continues to wait for Boris’s call growing more impatient by the minute. His passport is still in the car that they drove to the rendezvous. After trying to get a new passport through the embassy (and failing), he tries to sneak to Paris via train (also failing). Then hee begins to concoct a plan. He writes letters to all the important people in his life–Hobie, Pippa, Kitsey, and Mrs. Barbour, and then does a bunch of drugs. However, the plan is not to commit suicide. The plan is go have a good night and then turn himself in. But before he gets the opportunity, Boris reappears with a bunch of money that he is giving to Theo. Boris indirectly called in an anonymous tip that led to locating the painting and many other pieces of stolen artwork.

Theo returns to the USA and confesses the entire story to Hobie. With his new windfall and essentially new life, Theo sets off to refund the money for all the counterfeit furniture that he sold over the years. He’s still engaged to Kitsey but still a part of him is hoping that something happens with Pippa. The book ends philosophically. One bad decision (stealing the painting) eventually led to a good outcome (recovering it and many other paintings). What does that mean about a person’s innate behavior? What is the meaning of the painting of The Goldfinch itself. A chained bird who looks content in its surroundings.

Verdict: 4.5 stars

I thought this was easily one of the best books I’ve read. The author seems so knowledgeable about everything she wrote about–from art to furniture to drugs. It made this fictional story seem like a real auto-biography. Definitely worth the time commitment.

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Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review

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