The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is the story of a young boy who is present at a museum the day it is bombed by terrorists. Having survived the blast, he stays at the side of an older man, also a patron at the museum, until the older man dies. During those last moments, the young boy retrieves a painting, called The Goldfinch, from the rubble and understands from the man that he should take it with him which, in his concussed and confused state, he does. He intends to return the painting safely, but as time passes, he fears the punishment that would come with confessing his theft. What follows is the story of the passage from his young teenage years to adulthood, with the purloined art always in his thoughts.
The Goldfinch requires an investment by its readers. At 775 pages, the book not only spans time in its characters’ lives, it details an emotional and physical journey that draws in the reader. Theo Decker, the young boy who walks away from the museum with The Goldfinch, is homeless after the blast. His mother, who took him to the museum on that fateful day, is killed by the explosion, and it is some time before Decker’s estranged father returns to his life. Theo alternately earns the reader’s sympathy and disapproval. His disintegration is the product of circumstances inflicted on him by an act of terrorism, but he exacerbates this downward spiral through drug abuse and dealing in counterfeit goods.
There’s no doubt The Goldfinch is well and powerfully written. As the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that description is clearly deserved. Its story is intense, at times almost too painful to read. Readers ponder the painting from time to time—it’s unique beauty, the simplicity of the goldfinch as the central figure in the work, the chain holding it to its perch—and look for similarities between the subject of the painting, and the existence of the painting itself, to Theo’s life. Was he chained by the tragic event that took his mother’s life and left him injured and emotionally scarred? Was he chained by the theft of the painting, or by the painting itself? Was he chained by his love of Pippa, the young girl who was also injured in the blast? Was the survival of the painting itself, and the life of the artist, a parallel to Theo’s life?
The Goldfinch was published in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company. Donna Tartt is the author of two other books, The Secret History and The Little Friend.