The story of “The Goldfinch,” a novel of more than 770 pages by Donna Tartt, begins with 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother on their way through New York to a meeting at Theo’s school. Theo’s father is not with them; he had abandoned them some months before.
When they get out of the cab, it begins to pour and the two run into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit an exhibition of Dutch masters, especially “The Goldfinch,” painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius and a longtime favorite of Theo’s mother.
When it is time for them to head to the school, the two separate just for a minute; Theo’s mother wants a last look at an exhibit. This is the moment when a bomb explodes, killing her and others.
Theo comforts a dying stranger, Welty, who gives him a ring and tells him where to take it. His words also move Theo to rescue – in effect, to steal – “The Goldfinch.”
Afterwards, Theo cannot give back the painting, and it becomes the impetus for his actions for decades to come. The story centers on what will happen to the painting and what will happen to Theo, who is ultimately drawn into the underworld of art.
This story, in which the protagonist loses his mother while gaining a painting she loved, follows Theo’s psychological and moral growth from that time to adulthood. He moves in first with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a classmate. He becomes friends with Hobie, the man to whom the dying Welty asked Theo to take his ring, and who, Theo learns, was the furniture-restoring half of the partnership of the two in their West End antiques store.
Theo’s long-absent father appears in New York with his girlfriend and takes Theo to Las Vegas, where they will live and where Theo will go to school. His father is no model parent, leaving his son mostly to his own devices; from then on, Theo makes questionable decisions about drugs, whom to befriend, and how he spends his time. His best friend, the Ukranian Boris, is brilliant, multilingual and alcoholic, and lives alone, unrestricted by his father, a man with rage issues who sometimes beats his son.
Theo is pulled in many directions, finally to a life of crime. The painting comes to mean less and less to him as the psychological distance between him and his dead mother increases. The novel raises questions about trauma, guilt, authenticity, love and morality and Theo’s relationship to these topics.
History of the actual painting: Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) was a Dutch painter and a student of Rembrandt. “The Goldfinch” is a small painting, about 9 inches by 13 inches, of a pet songbird. It is part of a traveling exhibition of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. Fabritius was part of the 17th century Delft School. The 32-year-old painter was a victim of a cataclysmic explosion of gunpowder magazines that destroyed part of the city of Delft.