Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
This story is the “autobiography” of the fictional character Theodore “Theo” Decker, whom we meet in his late 20’s or early 30’s. At age thirteen, Theo’s life is shockingly disrupted on a visit with his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. First he falls in love at first sight with a red-headed girl named Pippa. Then, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and dozens of others.
In the rubble after the explosion, Theo encounters an elderly man, who, in a dying gesture, gives him a ring and an enigmatic message. Theo thinks the man is pointing at Carel Fabritius’s famous painting, “The Goldfinch.” [This is a real painting, never actually stolen, and currently owned by the Royal Picture Gallery of The Hague.] It was his mother’s favorite. In the ensuing chaos and confusion, Theo takes the ring and the painting and wanders out of the museum.
Not really understanding the value of the painting, Theo keeps it and hides it among his scant possessions, because it is the only connection he has to his lost mother, and because the sheer beauty of the painting helps soothe his pain and loneliness.
Theo’s father was long gone when the explosion took place, so he goes to live with a school friend’s family. His life is once again disrupted when his father reappears and takes him to Las Vegas, where Theo develops some nasty habits like smoking, drinking, and drugs.
Theo ultimately returns to New York and becomes a dealer of antique furniture in partnership with James “Hobie” Hobart, the former partner of the elderly man who was killed in the terrorist explosion at the Museum. There he once again meets Pippa, but she is just visiting from her school in Switzerland, and, although their attraction seems mutual, they once again go their separate ways. Hobie is very honest, but not a very good business man. Theo is a much better businessman, but not as scrupulous. Hobie is a talented builder and restorer of furniture – so good that Theo is able to pass off some of Hobie’s work as that of some of the famous old masters at prices commensurate with their inflated value.
Theo’s chicanery is discovered by one of the buyers, Lucius Reeve, who refuses Theo’s offer to repurchase an “antique” at a higher price than he originally charged. Instead, Reeve attempts to blackmail Theo. Reeve figured out that Theo was in the same museum room with “The Goldfinch” during the bombing and believes Theo and Hobie know of its whereabouts. Things start moving very fast when “The Goldfinch” is stolen and Theo tries to get it back.
The novel concludes with Theo’s pondering what he has learned from his past. In particular, he contemplates the painting and “the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire.”
Evaluation: This book is very well written. The author writes authoritatively about the art world and antique furniture. Her ear for dialog is finely tuned, especially when relating conversations at formal gatherings of the wealthy. Moreover, while the narrator (and principal character) is male, I never had the feeling that the author was female.
My one criticism is that the book is a bit too long, although the final chapters move along like a thriller. I should also note that my sister and brother-in-law, both well-schooled educators, felt the book was “overwritten.” This accords with the many reviews that have described this book as “Dickensian.” With Dickens, one either revels in the profusion of words, or reviles it. I would probably be in the former group.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Published by Little Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group, 2013
Note: This book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.