The Goldfinch is the long and twisting story of Theodore Decker. On an ordinary day in his almost-obnoxiously New York childhood (we have an hour to kill before meeting with your principal – let’s ride a cab a few blocks and go see an Old Masters exhibit at a fancy gallery), Theodore is caught in a terrorist bombing. Shell shocked and bleeding in the aftermath of the explosion, unable to find his mother, Theodore finds something else instead – an Old Master painting, undamaged by the explosion. For reasons he can’t explain, he takes it, and hides it away for himself. Then, after finding his way home he waits for the call to come telling him his mother’s been found and taken to hospital. After an agonizing wait, he receives a call, and is told that his mother died in the blast.
At first he stays with a friend’s family. Foster care is discussed, but eventually he’s sent off to live with his estranged, addicted-to-everything-from-Class-A-drugs-to-high-stakes-gambling father in Las Vegas. From there Theodore’s life continues to ping pong out of control, before finding a degree of stability back in New York, at the home of an art dealer he met after the terrorist attack.
Throughout the bulk of its 700+ pages The Goldfinch is a fairly standard bildungsroman, following Theodore’s adolescence and early adulthood, and leaving the priceless stolen painting hidden under his bed all but forgotten. But periodically we’re reminded that that it’s still there. Years later Theodore finds himself unable to get rid of it, despite the very real, years-in-prison danger of being caught with a priceless missing painting.
Eventually the novel finally veers into a world of art thieves and underground crime. A lesser novel would have fallen apart under the strain of this jarring shift, but by that point Theodore is so well sketched, so deeply understood by the reader that the high stakes crime-caper denoument meshes surprisingly well with the more slow-paced introspection of the earlier sections. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Theodore’s early life is arguably far more compelling than the bulk of his adult years, with the deadened, discomforting aftermath of the terrorist bombing an especially strong testament to Tartt’s status as one of the best writers of pure narrative prose around.
But even above that, to me the most special aspects of The Goldfinch are found during Theodore’s early adolescence with his father – and more importantly his friend Boris – in Las Vegas. Boris – a rough, alcoholic, troubled Ukrainian boy – quickly becomes Theodore’s best, essentially only friend. The relationship they share comes to dominate much of the novel, and it’s one of the most well-realised, closely-observed friendships I’ve seen in fiction (Elena Ferante’s Neapolitan Novels also do a wonderful job, in its own vastly different way (cough cough)).
The two spend their days skipping school, shoplifting, drinking and taking drugs to the point of unbelievable, dangerous levels of intoxication. And then they do it again and again and again. And in doing so they become the only island of stability in each other’s horribly disfunctional lives. At times it feels like they share every waking minute together. Their gangly childhood affection mixes with intense jealousy, violence, and those handful of unspoken-of moments that, when recalled years down the line feel both sharp and imminent, but also entirely unreal; that cause you to wonder at 26 years-old – ‘my God, was that really me?’.
Are we still talking about The Goldfinch, here?
I loved the entirety of this stupidly long book, but this was the part that really stuck with me. Theodore feels real and alive and close at hand throughout the novel, but its during these years in Las Vegas that Theodore becomes Theodore. And it’s in its depiction of that turbulent, drug-addled example of teenage chaos that The Goldfinch really captures something special: that awful, wonderful (, awful) intensity of adolescence. And the people that come to mean so much to you, to shape you in such unexpected ways, before disappearing, in some cases, forever.