This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch, will keep you on the edge of your seat from page 1. The novel is the story of Theo Decker, whoselife is filled with equal parts wonder and tragedy. The main tragedy being, the death of his beloved mother at the age of 13. After being abandoned by her alcoholic husband, Theo and Audrey Decker become incredibly close – indeed in the opening chapters Theo’s descriptions of her beauty and style are almost uncomfortable. But perhaps these bespeak only of how Theo has romanticised the memory of her.
A lover of art, Audrey fatefully takes Theo to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the morning of a terrorist attack. Having run off alone to the gift ship while Theo remains in the vicinity of a beautiful girl he has spotted, Audrey becomes one of the casualties of the day, and Theo remains relatively unharmed. His last memory is of looking together at Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. Trapped in the rubble, Theo befriends a dying man who encourages him to take The Goldfinch. The painting becomes Theo’s personal talisman, and although he later comes to realise that he is guilty of art theft and that the international authorities are looking for the painting, he cannot bear to give it up.
All but orphaned, Theo lives briefly with the Barbour family, parents of a classmate, and meets James Hobart (‘Hobie’), the business partner of the man in the museum and also Pippa, the girl whose beauty so distracted him that day. Theo remains in love with Pippa throughout the novel, despite her injuries and psychological damage from the explosion. Just as Theo begins to become more settled in his new life, he is spirited off unwillingly to Las Vegas by his father. There, Theo is left much to his own devices as his father’s addictive personality leads him to gamble professionally and move onto pharmaceuticals. Even his new girlfriend Xandra is as unmotherly a presence as could be imagined. Stranded alone often in an area so remote that not even Dominos will deliver there, Theo makes just one friend – one who will change and shape his life- Boris, an enigmatic Ukrainian.
Boris and Theo delve into drugs and petty crime, and the kind of absorbing adolescent friendship that only two lonely boys can have. This freedom and disregard for rules comes to shape Theo’s future, even when he runs back to New York after his father’s death. With him, he takes Popper, Xandra’s neglected dog, and the pillowcase in which he has stored and hidden The Goldfinch over the years.
Theo’s return to New York shows the reader how much he has changed. He is unable to face the proper Barbour family, but finds the possibility of redemption and a home with Hobie, who becomes a father figure to him. He neglects his academic gifts and follows Hobie into the antiques business – although he cannot escape the desire to break the rules that was fostered in Las Vegas, selling forgeries for great profit, which just happens to bring Hobie back from the brink of bankruptcy. But his proximity to the art world reminds him of the international search for The Goldfinch, which fills him with dread.
This dread shapes his life, and he becomes one of those people who can never be happy. He is addicted to pills. He pines over Pippa, but engages himself to another girl, the sister of his now deceased friend Andy Barbour. And his lies begin to catch up with him – one of his forgeries has been discovered and the man involved has managed to link him to the stolen painting – which much to Theo’s surprise is rumoured to be being used as collateral in a series of shady deals in Europe.
When Boris returns, all is revealed.
There is something Dickensian about all the connections and coincidences in the book, but they have the feeling of the truth of life in them as well. Theo will always be damaged – there is no easy happy ending in place. In fact, Theo is as much the chained bird as the eponymous Goldfinch of the title. The past can always shape our future – until we choose to let it go.
Tartt took 10 years to write this epic journey – time well spent if you ask me. She creates extraordinary characters and compelling situations in which to place them. As absorbing as The Luminaries (winner of the Booker and similar in scale) was last year.