This sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting tale of tragedy and triumph, mistakes and redemption, is narrated by Theo Decker. It begins with a glowing description of his mother, Audrey Decker, an art historian. Both are on their way to a conference to discuss Theo’s recent suspension from school. He breaks rules with abandon, even though he knows the consequences for him and his mom could be dire. The book could be described as a memoir of Theo’s life, if Theo was real, and indeed, Theo does become real with the expert pen of the author. This book lends itself to the audio version since the reader was accomplished at using accents and tones of voice which perfectly fit each character. The author’s characters are very authentic, more so because of the talented reader, and are beautifully drawn by their dialogue and descriptions. Some books follow a single thread to their conclusion, but this one, follows many and requires the reader’s complete attention. It is an experience that is well worth the effort.
The book takes the reader on a tour of the international art world, its dealers and its thieves, exposing its dangers as well as its beauty. It illuminates the human frailties flawed human beings are heir to and does it remarkably well. The paintings, often described, offer a primer on art for the reader. The author examines the shallowness of the wealthy, the corruption of the dishonest and the foolishness of the irresponsible and immature with a clarity that brings it home. The descriptions put the reader in whatever place Theo finds himself and then witnesses his reality in which right and wrong take on different meanings depending on the circumstances. Although very long, and sometimes overly tedious with details, it is an absolutely marvelous book to read and ponder afterwards. What is happiness? How is it attained? How will we know when we achieve it? Is it the same for everyone? Is every good deed punished in the end?
Theo and his mother are waylaid on their way to the school conference because of a sudden storm. They race into the museum to wait for the rain to stop and Audrey Decker shows her son Theo her favorite painting, “The Goldfinch". It is a “350-year-old, 13-by-9-inch painting by the artist, Carel Fabritius”. Studying the painting, near them, is an elderly man who is accompanied by a young girl (Pippa), who catches Theo’s eye. Because he is entranced by her, he does not go with his mom when she leaves to view the rest of the exhibition and to make a purchase in the shop for him. Instead, they make arrangements to meet up in a short time. Their plans are thwarted, when without warning an explosion rocks the building. Theo, confused and alone, stumbles upon, and comforts, the elderly man he had just seen. When the man tells him to take the painting, Theo, who is in a dazed state, simply follows his command and removes "The Goldfinch" from its frame, taking it with him when he leaves.
Thus begins Theo’s story, from the time of the attack that changed his life, to the time he finally comes of age, albeit as an adult, and understands the errors of his ways and the meaning of his life. The little bird, the goldfinch, was shackled in the painting, doomed to be attached to its perch forever. In many ways, for years, Theo’s life was irrevocably tied and attached to the fate of the painting he removed on that tragic day, the day he experienced the terrible loss of the mother he adored. All of his future actions were influenced by that trauma. The ensuing havoc and horror of the destruction and death were described in graphic and realistic detail. The author captured the violence of the explosion, the confusion of the aftermath and the consequences of its effects, perfectly, with drama and considerable tension.
As the survivor, 13 year-old Theo blames himself for his mother’s death. After all, they would not have been in the museum were it not for his problems at school. Terrified of being in a foster home, shunted from one place to another, he reaches out to a school friend, Andy Barbur, and the social worker arranges for the Barbur family to care for him temporarily.
The injured old man, who told him to take the painting, also gave him his ring and asked him to bring it to a place called Blackwell and Hobart. When he returns it, he meets the old man's business partner, Hobie, and also the girl he was attracted to in the museum, the elderly man’s companion, convalescing there from her injuries. He visits with Pippa awhile, becoming more and more attracted to her. Hobie was so touched by the return of his dear friend Woody’s ring that he told Theo he would always be there for him if he needed help.
Eventually, the father who had abandoned him and his mom, turns up and takes him to live in Las Vegas. He has ulterior motives for taking him back into his custody, but Theo is unaware of them until he is asked to lie to the trustee, asking him to give his father a large amount of cash from his mother’s legacy. His father is still a gambler and a drinker and he is in deep debt. While living in Nevada, Theo meets Boris, a rather questionable character who offers him friendship. Boris has some strange ideas about life concerning what is allowed and what is forbidden. Already on a path of dubious ethical behavior, he is led down a steeper path by Boris, who broadens his debauchery with drugs, alcohol, cutting school and petty theft.
With the sudden death of his father, Theo decides to run away to NYC, not wanting to be caught up, once again, in the morass of social services for the social workers are surely coming. Boris does not want to go with him, so he runs off alone, without thinking, and with no other place to go, winds up back at Blackwell and Hobart. There he re-encounters Pippa, and although unattainable, he remains smitten by her for years. Hobie takes him in and is happy to offer any assistance he can. He offers him a far better atmosphere of moral behavior, honor and loyalty than he had ever experienced before. As the years pass, he becomes his apprentice and then his partner. The business thrives. Unfortunately, Theo’s wayward ways follow him and he often confuses what is right from wrong in an attempt to solve his problems. He excuses his acts of betrayal by his need to make things right. For him, the means justify the ends, even when they push the envelope beyond its legal limit.
In the meantime, still in possession of the painting, he hides it in a storage facility and pretty much puts it out of his mind. Although he wants to return it, He doesn’t know how to proceed. He fears retribution and prison for taking it, in the first place, and is unable to decide what to do with it. Eventually, the decision will be taken out of his hands. From the time of his mother’s , until the time he comes to understand how and why he has floundered about, Theo and the painting are inextricably bound together. He is on a roller-coaster of confusion and uncertainty, often obsessively seeking what he can’t have and finding little satisfaction in what he attains. We bear witness to his world full of death and sadness, destruction and disappointment, unrequited love and unattainable desires.
Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is mentioned in the book, and like Prince Myshkin, Theo’s development is altered by the trauma of events in his life, and he too, is immature, eventually abandoning his good intentions for foolish ones because he is unable to make mature moral judgments. How will life work out for Theo?