I burned through this book in less than ten days, not because it’s a fast-paced read, but because I got it as an audiobook from the library and knew if I didn’t finish it I’d never get to hear the end of it. Then I realized it was more than 30 hours. 30 hours! Why is a thriller about an art theft so long?
I guarantee if this book had been written by Lee Child it would have been only 40% as long. But it doesn’t start out as an art-theft thriller. It starts out when a 13-year-old named Theo Decker goes to a museum with his mother. In the museum, he sees and falls in love with a redheaded girl named Pippa, who is at the museum with Welty, an art dealer. He thinks he’ll never see them again, but their fates and his become intertwined.
And then his mother dies. Because his dad isn’t in the picture, her death marks the beginning of a long period of instability for poor Theo as he bounces from temporary guardian to temporary guardian.
He starts out as a very sympathetic character. Theo is an intelligent, dedicated and sensitive orphan who is, at his heart, a good kid, who only gets into trouble because of bad influences. You want him to turn out like his kind and beautiful mother, not his alcoholic deadbeat narcissist of a father. When he first meets Boris, Boris seems to be the kind of bad seed who will lead poor Theo to ruin.
But after a few hours of audiobook, I changed my mind. Sure, Boris is the one who got Theo into drugs, but his dad was the one who got him into drinking, partly through access and partly through genetics and modeled behavior. And as the novel goes on, it’s Boris who, time and time again, is the only beacon of light in Theo’s self-destructive and nihilistic worldview. Boris does Theo one bad turn, and then spends the rest of the book making up for it. He’s 10% bad, and 90% good, and even the bad he did actually did Theo a favor both in the short term and the long term.
This book has a lot of hard-hitting themes that would be fun to discuss in a book club, if you could convince a group of people to wade through such a doorstop. There’s art and beauty, for one. Theo is mesmerized by the Goldfinch painting, and is enamored of things. So is Hobie, and Theo’s mother, and quite a few of the other characters. These are people who value things more than people. This is the opposite of where I personally am in my life right now, so it was hard to emphasize with them on that point. Also it’s hard to get worked up about forgeries if you’re not of the opinion that an object has a soul. If a piece of furniture looks and feels as good as the “real” antique, in my opinion, it is as good as the antique.
Another theme of the book is the theme of good and evil. Theo haunts himself with his sins. He languishes under the weight of his unquiet conscience. And yet, he lies easily to those close to him, without scruple or pause. He laments that he has no connection with his fiance, nor with the woman he really loves, and yet he doesn’t trust even his closet friends with important aspects of his life. It’s like a guidebook on how to die alone and unloved. Want to alienate everyone who cares about you? Lie to them constantly! Hide your flaws! Not the first, but the second or third time he flat-out lied to Hobie, I started to dislike Theo.
The other thing that made me dislike Theo was his drug and alcohol abuse. Dude gets f$%#ed up on a regular basis. He’s depressed most of the time, but never draws a connection between his depression and the fact that he has no true friends and no coping skills other than what you can buy from a stranger with a burner phone. I started to hope he never managed to win the love of the woman he cherished, because anyone could see this dude is a trainwreck of a man.
I really enjoyed how well the characters were drawn, and I liked the plot, though it was drawn out far too long. Tartt spends a lot of time on description. A lot of time. An enormous amount of time. I mean, seriously, like enough already. She especially spends a lot of time describing antiques and drug-haze episodes. There’s a scene where Boris and Theo are in a flat and another guy Horst is going on and on about some paintings, and who they’re by, and how their souls will grab you by the lapels and pour absinthe into your nostrils or whatever overdrawn art metaphor, and Boris is kind of rolling his eyes and saying “enough already!” I was like “right there with you, buddy.” And I like art.
By the time Theo gets to Amsterdam, I was done with him. His drug use and narcissism had gone beyond “flawed protagonist” and into “antagonist who I hoped would meet an ill fate.” In the last 3 hours of the book (roughly the last 10%) the plodding pace felt excruciating. In one scene, Theo thinks he’s lost his passport, and he calls the consulate, and the conversation with the woman on the other end of the line is repeated word for word. Seriously. I was so frustrated that I considered just returning the book to the library at that point.
As with many books, the greatest strengths are also its greatest flaws. The strengths are that it has flawed characters, exquisite description, and a dark plot. The weaknesses are that Theo is so flawed that I lost sympathy for him, and the excessive description padded the plot so much that a lot of the tension got lost. Having Theo be too boneheaded to actually talk to someone who is A. in the same room with him and B. possessing of valuable information and C. more than willing to give that information made me wish he were real just so I could punch him.
But, I did like how it ended. The plot, anyway, excepting that the pivotal scene, THE PIVOTAL SCENE was off-camera and told after-the fact. I mean, seriously. I get that it was all from Theo’s point of view, consistency, etc. etc. I get that, but I mean, Jeez. Dude just spent like 50 audiobook minutes feeling sorry for himself, while other characters are actually doing something. But then at least we found out what happened. It had a kind of tedious 45 minutes or so of philosophical denouement that should have happened a lot sooner in the book, but the plot got wrapped up pretty nicely.