Does a good intention cancel out a bad deed? In a moment of utter tragedy, when the world around him lies in shambles after an explosion at the New York Metropolitan Museum, thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker takes a painting called “The Goldfinch,” a masterpiece by Carel Fabritius. His mother told him minutes before the explosion that she truly loved that painting. Theo cannot find his beloved, his beautiful mother; he cannot save her, but he can save the painting and with it, her love.
Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” paints its own picture of children, parents, and friends who are, in a way, trapped on a canvas and employ love, betrayal, and friendship to color their existence. And hence we accompany Theo at the beginning of this difficult road and can sympathize as he struggles to overcome loss. How easy it is to step off the right path to find sense in our existence or, perhaps, we simply stumble over the flaws in the fabric that was woven to make up our fate.
The author introduces the main characters who will impact Theo’s future in sequence as the story unfolds. Theo’s good-for-nothing father, who has left the family some time ago, cannot be located, and his grandparents are not too keen on him either, so Theo is taken in by the wealthy Barbour family. This affords him the opportunity to connect with the kind and sensitive antiques dealer Hobie, of Hobart and Blackwell. Living with Hobie is Pippa, a girl who had fascinated Theo the moment he saw her when he stood by his mother in front of “The Goldfinch.” A tender friendship blossoms, and the reader anticipates that Theo will share his secret of keeping a stolen painting with Hobie, although it will be a surprise that Theo will indeed abuse Hobie’s trust years later and betray him.
The setting changes abruptly when Theo’s father reappears in New York City, tears through the still delicate safety net of normalcy and routine, and takes Theo with him. It is ironic that his indebted and gambling father never finds out that Theo has hidden a painting worth millions in his house. The presence of the stolen painting hovers ever in the background. It is a symbol of pure beauty, and the last link to his mother and selfless love. Yet as time goes by, it is also a burden, and its secrecy must be kept.
At school Theo befriends Boris, a fatal relation that not only overshadows the present but also the future. Boris becomes Theo’s closest confidante, but Theo cannot confide his secret to Boris. At the same time, Boris drags him further away from the right path. The outskirts of Las Vegas bake in the blistering sun, as Theo’s chance of self-healing, redemption, and righteousness drown in a pool of drugs, alcohol, and crime.
The longer that Theo keeps the picture, the more unlikely it is for him to return it and to make the theft look as if it had been a simple mistake. Through a twist of events, Theo makes it back to New York City and reestablishes his old friendships. Although he puts physical distance between the painting and himself, Theo cannot cut the last thread of connection.
Tartt implies there is a recurring question here: Why humans do things that they know are wrong? Why do they trap themselves in destructive patterns of life, just like a goldfinch on a canvas? Intuitively Theo knows the answer. The painting links him with his mother. The masterpiece has survived centuries, has defied death and not lost any of its beauty.
Although “The Goldfinch” is voluminous, Tartt’s distinctive writing style is captivating. The story juxtaposes the immortality and purity of art versus our own flaws and mortality. It shows us the irony of fate and how some good intentions turn out to feed our fate through the choices we make. Thus the book prompts us to examine our own life. And it prompts us to cherish beauty in the midst of chaos.