Theo Decker is thirteen years old when, during a visit to an art museum, a bomb explodes–killing his mother and defining the course of his life into adulthood. There are the obvious impacts on the life of a child separated from a loving and responsible parent. Furthermore, Decker feels guilty because he and his art-loving mother only stopped in the museum on the way to a meeting with the Principal. Theo’s dad had flown the coup before the book’s start, and is an alcoholic gambler in addition to being a deadbeat dad. The lack of a reliable family member who can (and wants to) take Theo puts tremendous stress on the boy, encouraging him to fall into the same patterns as the father he despises.
Theo spends the remainder of his adolescence in a mix of homes: a caring and wealthy (but in many ways dysfunctional) household where he feels his outsider status, his father’s neglectful Las Vegas home where he makes a solitary friend—Boris–of similar circumstance, and, finally, the home of a wise craftsman to whom Theo is connected only indirectly by the events of that fateful day. No matter whether he is in a good home with a responsible and respectable guardian or in his father’s white trash estate, there’s always a cloud of uncertainty over the boy’s life.
There’s also an unexpected way in which Decker’s life is defined by the bombing. Waking up amid the debris and dust, he tries to help an old man in the last minutes of life, only to witness the man’s death. Shaken, fearful, and unable to find his mother, Theo stumbles his way out through the back of evacuated museum having absconded with a small but famous painting, Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch.” He knows he should return the painting, but the fact that it was one of his mother’s favorites and that he doesn’t want to rock the boat and get sent to an institution leads him to keep it. Furthermore, as much as he loathes the idea of being like his father, he shares his old man’s tendency to get himself into pickles because of a desire to be liked that is so extreme that it keeps him from taking responsibility for his actions and encourages him to self-medicate to deal with the stress of always having dark clouds overhead. The journey of the book, which takes us from the bombing to Decker’s life as a 20-something adult, is all about whether his own innate goodness in combination with the positive role models (living and deceased) around him will allow him to shake off the demons his father never could.
Tartt wrote this book masterfully. The fact that it won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize is more praise than I can heap on it. The book actually opens with an adult Theo Decker in an Amsterdam hotel room, afraid to go outside for reasons the reader isn’t yet let in on. Later we discover that this is chronologically near the story’s resolution, and it serves as a brilliant hook. For the entire book, that hook is set and the question of why resounds in the back of one’s mind.
It’s a rare 800+ page book that doesn’t drag, but this one pulls one through beautifully. This is in large part owing to the character development of all the major characters, and there are quite a few important characters in a book of this scope. While some are cads (e.g. Theo’s dad and his girlfriend “Xandra”) and some are virtuous to a fault (e.g. Hobie, Theo’s guardian from age 15 onward), one sees enough depth to experience the humanity of them all: the good in the bad and the bad in the good. Other than the lead—and possibly inclusive of him—the most fascinating character is his best friend, Boris, who features prominently in Theo’s Las Vegas years as well as during the novel’s climax and resolution.
The other factor that keeps the tension on is the dysfunctionality of many of these characters. There’s always drama to be had. In fact, when things are looking up in the novel is when the reader gets the biggest sense of foreboding, a feeling that the bottom will inevitably fall out. We know the bottom will drop out because Decker has set himself up for it to—and not entirely unwittingly. We just don’t know how until the book’s end.
I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction. Don’t let the large page count and suggestion of stuffiness (art, antiques, and high society New York all featuring prominently in the book) dissuade one. It’s readable and engaging, and it offers the same authenticity then describing Boris and Theo smoking pot and eating sugar on bread for dinner as it does when it’s talking about the sale of a fake 18th century armoire.