When Theo Decker survives the terrorist attack on an art museum that kills his mother, he takes with him The Goldfinch, a famous and invaluable painting. His life then unfolds in segments, profoundly impacted by the strong characters that he’s around, such as his con-man drunken father, emotionally stunted Andy, trustworthy Hobie, frantic Boris and wonderful Pippa. Unable to escape his past despite forays into drugs and crime, the painting becomes a secret that seems necessary to his survival. But this too catapults him into betrayal, violence and the European criminal underworld. He writes his memoirs as a way to try to piece it all together.
This was a strange book! As perhaps the summary suggests, there are so many strands, segments and themes to it – and it’s so long – that it’s hard to form a cohesive thought about this book. Plus of course, it won a Pulitzer Prize. So it must be good. Right?
What I found most interesting was the way that Theo’s life progressed. He started as a young boy who I liked but was drawn gradually over his life into addiction, lying and crime. Despite being appalled by the same traits in his Father his lack of decision to pursue something else means he slips further and further into normalising his way of life. I was forever frustrated with him: internally urging him to take the painting back, get off drugs, sort his life out. It seemed all the makings of a happy ending were available, but he just didn’t reach for them.
Which was evocative in itself. Theo is secretive: a trait that means that he never seems able to move on from the trauma of his past (which is admittedly very extreme trauma) and so it follows him, inhibiting his ability to move forward. This is echoed by one of the most interesting facts I learned from the book: extreme trauma sufferers sometimes do not grow any taller than they were at the time of the incident.
I also enjoyed the characters in the book, and the fact that it spanned a good portion of Theo’s life meant that we saw people age, which was very interesting. We saw the difference that a decade made or didn’t make to the various characters, who were all intriguing in themselves. We were offered a wide spectrum from society lady to bullied child to drug addled immigrant teen, but all of them were human and surprising.
The last section of the book is a current. Theo is writing down his life, and he starts to philosophise. How bad things can turn out for good. From the dotted under-linings on my kindle this was perhaps the most Important and Quote-worthy part of the book. But I found that after so much time in the story I was racing through just trying to finish, hardly willing to spend time musing upon the meaning of life. Plus the moment I realised this was him-now-writing I confess to being a bit disappointed; at the end of such a varied story it felt cheap to try to round it off with a meaning. But again, perhaps that is the point.
And The Goldfinch of the painting is perhaps truly a metaphor for Theo, who remarks several times that the bird seems unaware of the chain around it’s foot. And so maybe Theo is blind to the things that hold him captive: the painting itself, drugs, the past and secrecy itself.
This was an interesting book, exploring the modern realities of trauma, terrorism and addiction; our relationship as humans to objects and to beauty and the way that we make life or life makes us. I’m still thinking about it, which is a good thing. And I’m glad I’ve read it. But I don’t think I’ll venture through the 800 pages again – particularly as one is left at the end without much hope.