“I’ve made a fortune off it, and I would really like for you to have it all to your own again-you know, the thing itself, for old time’s sake, just to have, to really be yours, keep in your closet or whatever, get out and look at it, like in old days, you know? Because I know how much you loved it. I got to where I loved it myself, actually.”
The Goldfinch is full of intricate ties and coincidences, and every event that takes place somehow relates back to one moment, when he was a 13-year-old boy whose mother was killed in a terrorist attack at a New York museum. At the time of the explosion, Theo’s mother was in a separate room from her son, looking at the painting of The Goldfinch by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. After being knocked out for some time, Theo thoughtlessly steals the painting and wanders out of the museum, The Goldfinch under his arm, completely ignored by the police and everyone he passes, until he finally reaches his mother’s apartment. From there, the story continues to go downhill for Theo, as he is taken by his estranged alcoholic father, to a new, seedy home in Las Vegas.
While in Las Vegas, Theo befriends an outsider like himself, the Russian-born and substance-abuse expert, Boris. Boris drags Theo down, and the two find themselves spending their days drinking incessantly and doing whatever drugs they can get their hands on. Meanwhile, the painting, like his mother’s ghost, haunts him at every twist and turn. Finally giving in to his fear of discovery and guilt for his impulsive theft years ago, Theo wraps The Goldfinch heavily in cardboard and rags, deciding never to look at it again, but at the same time keeping it close by.
The painting symbolizes Theo himself: he is chained to his mother’s death as long as this goldfinch is chained to a post. He can’t get rid of this painting, the same way he can’t shake off the memories of his mother and the terrorist attack that has single-handedly destroyed his life. He grasps for solace in dark things, such as drugs and lies, and only searches for the bad within the good he does have. As Boris tells Theo, ten years after the two have left Las Vegas, of their young drinking days, “I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.”
At times Theo is confused by his feelings for Boris, and the relationship borders on something more than their friendship’ They’ve both been through such rough experiences and have no one else to love, and therefore they depend on each other. Boris can hold Theo tightly at night not because he is in love with Theo, but because he loves Theo, as his closest confidante, the one person he can always depend on. But Theo, a born-and-bred New Yorker, can’t handle the careless Las Vegas lifestyle, and after his father dies, he runs away back to New York City, leaving Boris to fend for himself alone.
Years later, Boris comes to New York City to find Theo and admits that he stole The Goldfinch, thinking that Theo would have already discovered the textbook Boris put in its place. But the artwork has been preserved by Theo who has kept is wrapped up tightly and in storage. He is completely shocked when Boris tells him that he switched the painting with a math book and has been using it as a tool in illegal dealings: “I switched it. Yes. It was me. I thought you knew. Look, am sorry… I had it in my locker at school. Joke, you know… I swear, I wasn’t going to keep it.” All those years, Theo had been harboring guilt and fearing the authorities, when he was actually off the hook.
From then on the tone of the book shifts and becomes more fast-paced, as if Tartt finally decides she wants to get to the point and is tired of the story’s drawn-out plot. The audience is swept out of the US and into Amsterdam, where the painting is being held as collateral by drug dealers. During a violent scuffle for the painting, Boris gets shot and Theo saves the life of his boyhood friend by shooting and killing the enemy. The next few chapters becomes a hazy, discontented mess as Theo throws himself into drugs and illness while deciding whether or not to commit suicide because they did not save the goldfinch from the drug dealers, just as Theo cannot save himself.
The Goldfinch is a sad, beautifully written journey of the tormented soul of Theo Decker, a boy who tragically lost his mother and with her, his morals and sense of self. The Goldfinch explores the dark side of a person while perfectly delivering the message that life is only temporary, just like a painting that can slip from one’s grasp so easily.