Theodore Decker is thirteen when his life is ripped apart at the seams. While visiting the New York Metropolitan Museum, a bomb detonates, killing his mother. As he slowly regains consciousness in the wreckage of the blast, a dying man beckons him over, handing him a 17th century masterpiece, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. It is on this day that these two events will forever shape the course of Theo’s life.
Alone and adrift in the city, with no siblings or family to speak of other than an absent rather on the West coast, Theo is taken in by wealthy Manhattanites the Barbours. All the while he is moving through a fog of grief, whilst well-meaning adults press onto him cans of soda and meaningful looks, urging him to spill out his deepest emotions. Tartt beautifully describes the incomprehensibility of grief to a 13-year old who has just lost everything;
“Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”
At the behest of the dying man who laid amongst the ruins of the blast, Theo visits the address of Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques dealership. It is here that he meets Hobie, and gets to know the beautiful and mysterious Pippa, who was also caught up in the explosion. But before too long, Theo’s reprobate father turns up with his girlfriend and whisks him off to the Las Vegas desert.
We are suddenly thrown into a geographical – and social – world that could not be in greater contrast to that of New York. It’s here that, for me, the novel takes on a hyperreal quality – everything thrown into sharp relief, the light, colour, heat – the ‘hot mineral emptiness’. Theo meets Boris, a fellow classmate and unruly, motherless figure, and together they spiral down a rabbit hole of drink and drugs – even more extreme when you consider their age. The chapters with Boris in Las Vegas are exquisitely written – and Tartt seamlessly combines the perversity of high jinx and male friendship set to the backdrop of a dark and twisted world where absent parents sell cocaine and implicate themselves in dubious ‘business’ deals.
But Theo can’t stay in Vegas forever, and a series of events culminate in his achingly long bus trip from coast to coast, finally arriving back in the familiar enclaves of New York. And let us not forget the painting; forever by Theo’s side, the ‘still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.’ All his grief for his mother, his loneliness, despair – it is all wrapped up in, inseparable from the Fabritius masterpiece. Hobie, in one of his letters, acknowledges the comfort of objects in a world of constant shift;
“When we are sad—at least I am like this—it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the things that don’t change. Your descriptions of the desert—that oceanic, endless glare—are terrible but also very beautiful. Maybe there’s something to be said for the rawness and emptiness of it all. The light of long ago is different from the light of today and yet here, in this house, I’m reminded of the past at every turn. But when I think of you, it’s as if you’ve gone away to sea on a ship—out in a foreign brightness where there are no paths, only stars and sky.”
This passage perfectly encapsulates what I loved about The Goldfinch. The writing is exquisite. This mesmerising novel pulls you along, sweeps you up in its bildungsroman narrative and doesn’t let you go. Even when the plot lags at points, it keeps you spellbound. A lot of the plot is absurd, stretching credulity to the breaking point – and yet, why should this matter? If Tartt can make you believe – which she does – then objective achieved. That’s the power of art.