It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
The Goldfinch is my favorite type of book—grappling with the Big Questions behind the curtain, telling a once-in-a-lifetime kind of story on stage. It’s epic, 771 pages to adore and to swaddle, to contemplate and to doubt, to believe and to not-believe.
It starts with a 13-year-old boy having his world destroyed and stealing a painting, the eponymous “Goldfinch,” that just might one day be able to rebuild his world. We follow this boy, Theo, on a decades-long odyssey of self-loathing and guilt and loss. He goes from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, crossing paths with the most charming, surprising characters. Boris, a Russian druggie who befriends Theo in Vegas, is my favorite. His dialogue—though all the dialogue really—is brilliant, mimicking real speech through the most clever punctuation use and filler words. Characters and plots weave in and out, forgotten and abandoned for hundreds of pages, but despite its meandering, never for one moment does the book feel slow or directionless. It thrums forward with realism and excitement.
Tartt talks a lot about what makes art meaningful. The same way she asks what a painting can mean to someone, she inspired me to ask what literature means to me. And so I think the best stories are born in time or out of it. The greats are either ruthlessly part and parcel of the era in which they were written (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby) or undated, belonging to everyone who came before they were written and everyone who comes after. The Goldfinch falls to the latter category: it’s absolutely timeless, about the questions we ask again and again, but never reductive.
How should we live our lives when they are meaningless and cruel, and random fate can strike us down at any moment? Once we’re old and battered enough to realize and accept this lack of meaning, what can we do? Go on quietly? Be destroyed by it? Or do we say screw it and decide to make our meaning?
For the bulk of the novel, these questions hum beneath the surface, omnipresent but addressed rarely and only with averted eyes. But at the masterful end, Tartt not only gives us a bloody action finale but pushes us toward answers that hovered there all along, in sight but out of reach. Theo’s ultimate ruminations are like a gospel, a message on how to live in an age where the old rules have been discovered as false, discarded but not yet replaced. I died a few deaths between these covers only to be saved every time by Theo, and behind him, Donna Tartt, a careful author, omnipotent in her awareness that her novel has no meaning beyond what she can try to say and her readers can try to grasp. Meaning is neither objective nor infinite. But it can endure for some time and it can find some people, and by it, these people will be momentarily, miraculously, saved. Sort of like I was, at 11pm last night, 750 pages deep, close to the end of The Goldfinch but not ready to close it.