Originally published December 2013
Think your life is just one tragedy after another? You need to meet Theo Decker.
Here I thought Billy Lynn was going to be about the saddest protagonist I came across this year—poor Theo lapped him before the end of the first chapter of “The Goldfinch,” an astonishingly good book from Donna Tartt. On any number of “Best Books” lists for 2013, “The Goldfinch” makes my favorites, too.
The book’s opening is a bit of a misdirect—opening in Europe, the book quickly segues to Theo’s childhood and then moves forward chronologically from there. A young teenaged Theo’s been suspended from school for boyish misdeeds, and the ensuing parent conference means his mom needs to skip work. An extra few minutes before the meeting and side trip to the art museum, and in a flash, Theo’s life changes forever.
Theo’s journey takes him to the Barbours, an upper crust family that takes Theo into their home; to a dilapidated Vegas suburb with his father and skeevy girlfriend and mysterious friend Boris; back to New York where he lives with the business partner of the man that died in his arms; and on a harebrained journey to Europe. And for most of the way, he’s accompanied by just three things—his addictions to alcohol and pharmaceuticals, his unrequited love of a young girl he’s forever attached to through tragedy, and a painting. The Goldfinch. How he has it isn’t the mystery—it’s why he holds onto it that is.
Theo is an addict—not just of booze and pills—but of sorrow. Reminds me of what I like to call grief hounds—people who, while they don’t thrill at the notion of someone dying, are kicked into high gear when someone does. Theo wears sorrow like some of us wear a coat when it’s cold out. One could argue that sorrow just follows Theo around, but I’m thinking this is a guy who could have found a way off that path if he really wanted to. Or, maybe not—Theo’s also perennially depressed, and any depressive will tell you it’s not necessarily in their control. Problem is, Theo would rather self-medicate than get the help he needs. He’s just not that big on help.
The pain Theo endures is in itself almost unendurable to read, except that the story of Theo and his journey and his painting are mesmerizing. Tartt’s prose is poetic, and beautiful and carries you along. The twists and turns in his story—despite Theo’s many losses, many of the characters exit and re-enter Theo’s life over and again—keep the reader avidly engaged, and while you might not necessarily find yourself rooting for Theo, you want to find out what happens.
Reader beware—The Goldfinch is a hefty piece of work, and once you are in for about 150 pages or so, it’s hard to put down—things simply will.not.get.done. Just remember—reading is never a waste of time.