Theo Decker is hiding in an Amsterdam hotel, ill and terrified. He is afraid to set foot in the street. Through most of The Goldfinch, Theo relates the roots of his troubles, which lie 15 years in the past.
Thirteen-year-old Theo is out in New York City for a day with his mother. Normally, this would be a day he’d enjoy, but he is in trouble at his prep school, and they are on the way to school for a meeting. They are early, though, and his mother wants to stop at the museum to look at an exhibit.
Inside the museum, he spots an unusual couple—a hunch-backed old man and a fairy-like red-haired girl. He is only half attentive to his mother’s explanations of the paintings because he is looking at the girl. They stop to view a painting called The Goldfinch, one of the few remaining works by a Dutch artist named Fabritius.
Theo’s mother goes off to the gift shop while Theo trails after the girl. A few minutes later, Theo is knocked out by an explosion from a terrorist attack. When he comes to, the museum is oddly empty, but he finds the old man dying. The man gives him a ring and tells him to take it to an address, and then he suggests that Theo pick up The Goldfinch from a pile of dust and take it with him. He does, an act that becomes a defining moment of his life.
Assuming that his mother got out okay, Theo goes home, but he soon finds that she was killed. Since his ne’er-do-well father disappeared from their lives, it has been just the two of them for years. Social services ends up taking him to stay with the wealthy family of one of his school friends, the Barbours.
Suffering from grief and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, Theo tries to hide his insecurity and discomfort. As formal as the Barbour household is, he likes Mrs. Barbour and worries that the family might want him to leave. Eventually, he takes the old man’s ring to the address and meets the man’s partner Hobie and the girl, Pippa, who was badly injured in the explosion. She soon goes away to live with her aunt, but Theo continues to visit Hobie, who is a furniture restorer. And he is always in love with Pippa.
Just after Theo is invited to spend the summer in Maine with the Barbours, his whole life changes again. His father arrives and removes him abruptly from New York to Las Vegas. Theo is left to himself most of the time in a deserted suburb at the edge of the desert. His father at first appears to be well off, but soon it is clear he is living on the edges. Theo befriends another outcast, a Ukranian boy named Boris, and the two begin a slide into drugs and alcohol and the margins of society. Even after he returns to New York and tries to pull his life together, the secret of the painting serves as both a pleasure and a hidden terror.
It seems as if I am giving away a lot, but I have covered only the beginning of this long, involving novel. It explores such themes as the trauma of loss, the yearning for love, and the fragility of happiness and the present. In losing his mother, Theo seems to have lost his moral compass, so that even as he tries to help people, he creates problems for them and himself.
Tartt’s characters are complex and fully realized. Even the villains have facets to their personalities. Although Theo thinks of his father as a scoundrel—and he certainly has few redeeming qualities—Boris points out to him that when Boris was alone with nothing, Theo’s father took him in. An older Theo fears he has too much of his father in him.
The Goldfinch remains a golden, potent symbol throughout the novel. Theo loves the painting and feels that owning it somehow gives him stature. Yet at the same time he is terrified he’ll be found with it. Just as the bird in the picture is shackled, so Theo is captive to the painting.
Throughout the novel Theo disappointed me with his self-destructive tendencies even though he has good intentions. Still, Tartt tells a story that absolutely impels you to keep reading. This is a wonderful job of storytelling.