I went on vacation last week and, as is usual for me and most travelers, brought a book with me to read on the plane. It was a big, thick book that wouldn’t fit into my already over-stuffed purse, so I carried it around with me. I was shocked when four different people commented on it. (See, the art of reading is assuredly not dead!) It didn’t hurt that I had chosen this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, to keep me occupied. Everyone who talked to me said they had heard of the book and were excited to read it, and was I loving it? I told them that yes, I was absolutely loving it. I also said they should rush home and check it out from their local library (of course!) because they were in for a real treat.
Now, this book may not be for everyone. If you like happy characters who make good choices, don’t read it. Because it’s a rich character study of a man whose life is plagued with terrible decisions and even worse parental figures. As a 13-year-old boy, Theo Decker is involved in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the explosion, his mother dies, and an old man, with his dying words, convinces Theo to take his ring and a famous painting (The Goldfinch) from the museum. It is not an overstatement to say that those two actions will shape the rest of his life. He is instructed to take the ring to a shop, where he meets a wonderful old man named Hobie, who becomes Theo’s friend and mentor. There, he also meets the love of his life, Pippa, who he first spotted at the museum with her grandfather, the man who convinced Theo to take the painting. Theo’s father isn’t in the picture anymore, so he is taken in by the very wealthy family of a school friend. He learns to be content, but then his father reappears and takes him to Las Vegas with him and his new wife, Xandra. The years in Las Vegas are not good to Theo – he essentially becomes addicted to alcohol and drugs and befriends a Ukrainian boy named Boris, who will play a major part in the novel much later. Theo arrives back in New York with the painting and finds Hobie and Pippa again. He reconnects with other old friends and makes a living in Hobie’s shop selling antiques. Things come to a head when Boris comes back in his life.
The beauty of the novel lies in the struggle that Theo faces daily – between a path of self-destruction and a path to a normal, healthy life. This is captured perfectly in the following passage from the novel: “Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm – reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
It is a meaty book, and one that is worth the time it takes to get through. I think in the next few years it will be considered a classic; perhaps college kids will read about Theo Decker in their English 101 classes.