The plot of “The Goldfinch” is simple relative to its 784 pages. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother visit a museum, only to be caught in a terrorist attack. Theo’s mother is killed, and while Theo is picking his way out of the building, a dying old man urges him to take a painting of a goldfinch, a minor masterpiece. Theo finds himself unable to return the painting and carries it West with him when he goes to live with his father in Las Vegas, then back to New York. As an adult, Theo becomes a suspect in a renewed search for the painting. But in a twist, Theo learns that his friend Boris stole the painting from him long ago, saving Theo from criminal penalties and leaving him in the odd position of having protected an old package of papers for years.
“The Goldfinch” has much in common with Tartt’s first novel, “The Secret History,” which is about a group of college students who commit one murder and then kill a friend to cover for themselves. Both novels revolve around an enormous transgression that is known to the readers from the start, and both feature a confusion about aesthetics and morals, an obsession with an unobtainable girl, sexual contact between men, catalogs of riches and a sense that west of the Mississippi lies perdition. But if “The Secret History” has a sharp, cold intelligence and clear ideas about the difference between what is good and what we are drawn to, “The Goldfinch” never quite emerges above the haze of chemicals that its main character has consumed.
At the heart of “The Goldfinch” lies an unanswered question that neither Theo nor Tartt spend much time considering. Theo concludes at the end of the novel that his theft of the painting has been in service of something grand and important. It’s one of the dark ruminations on life common in mass culture these days.
“Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them,” Theo writes. But it is never clear that Theo saved the painting: He took it on the incoherent instructions of a dying man who believed it was in danger. Some artworks were destroyed and damaged in the bombing, but Theo found “The Goldfinch” intact after the attack. If anything, Theo’s decision to hold on to the painting rather than turn it in exposed it to greater risk, be it from trips across the country, his turbulent family situation or Boris’s greed.
Similarly, Tartt might have been able to draw out the difference between loving a real masterpiece and a fake if she had placed her reveal earlier in the novel or if she were less determined to stock it full of bric-a-brac. As an adult, Theo becomes an antiques dealer who sells knock-off furniture to clients he holds in utter contempt, “some Wall Street cheese fry who didn’t know Chippendale from Ethan Allen.” But Boris’s theft of the painting puts Theo in the same position as the people he is defrauding. Because he never bothers to check that the painting is still in the package he carried around with him, Theo gets as much pleasure from a fake — in fact, a civics textbook the same size as the painting — as from the real thing. When he is somewhat recovered from the news, Theo recognizes that he has come to depend on “the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart.”
Why Theo values that feeling is intriguing, as is the difference between the object and the love he holds for it. But “The Goldfinch” gets so distracted with other fakes — from paintings produced by one of Boris’s acquaintances to the sham that Theo’s engagement turns out to be — and other madcap plots that, though there are hundreds of pages that follow Boris’s news, the book rushes at the end to muddle through whether the authenticity of a thing matters or the investment we make in it. The conclusion Tartt’s characters reach may be true, but it is awfully trite for a slog of this length. “That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art,” Theo’s friend and mentor tells him, suggesting that great art makes us feel special and distinct rather than connected to others. “It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” It is a rather convenient validation for Theo’s misadventures.
“The Goldfinch” is full of delicious-sounding names, girandôle necklaces and majolica pottery, action sequences in Amsterdam and brittle comedies of manners in New York. But for all the details and objects she invokes, in “The Goldfinch,” Tartt’s still running a junk shop, passing rather mundane ideas and Theo’s justifications off as something rare.