It’s Art Heist April on Kat’s Clues! Join me all month long to discover books, movies, and more, all featuring art heists.
In 2013, the book world was abuzz with news that the new Donna Tartt was finally here. Tartt had previously written two highly acclaimed novels, The Secret History and The Little Stranger. The Goldfinch became an instant sensation and it deeply divided readers. Some people disliked it’s sprawlingness, its subplots, or its hefty length. I was on the other side, loving this book and falling completely into the world Tartt created. The Secret History is one of my favourite books, and The Goldfinch was a more than worthy successor.
The book begins with Theo Decker ill and alone in a hotel room in Europe, sweating out something major that has just happened. Is he going to be arrested? What criminal dealings is he mixed up in? We jump back in time to the young Theo, visiting the Metropolitan Museum with his mother. . . just before a bomb goes off. Dazed and in shock, Theo searches for his mother and instead finds a dying man who insists Theo take a painting by Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt’s. Before he knows it, he’s stumbled outside, painting rolled up in his bag.
Theo finds himself drifting. His mother was killed in the blast, his father is a deadbeat alcoholic. He is shipped off to Las Vegas to live with relatives, where he falls in with the affably thuggish Boris, who helps him numb his pain with drugs and mischief. He finds himself returning again and again to his one constant comfort: “his” painting. He knows he can’t return the artwork, which is now listed as having been destroyed or looted from the museum in the blast, and he can’t bring himself to dispose of it.
From the blinding, agoraphobic feel of Theo’s drugged-out Las Vegas days, the book follows our hero back to New York, where he tries to get his life on track, growing up and becoming a dealer of not-always-legit antique furniture. Each phase of Theo’s life is connected somehow with his painting. And when the painting goes missing and some shady figures emerge from the periphery of Theo’s vaguely criminal life, things heat up.
Tartt’s style is expansive yet detailed, poetic and rich with memory and despair. Washington Post critic Ron Charles references the influence of Dickens in her descriptive and measured voice. Each setting is evocative and strikingly different from the others. The characters spring to life, and even as we learn more and more that Theo is an anti-hero, we can’t help but be caught up in his dealings.
The book explores the seediness that can be found in the art and antiques trade, the way that provenances can be created for stolen or forged pieces, and the role that priceless artworks have in the international drug world, being used as currency or markers, handed back and forth across the globe. The story takes its time in some places, which contrasts sharply and deliberately with the times when it hurtles forward. The stakes–for painting and Theo both– grow dire as we descend further into the criminal underworld.
The Goldfinch is as masterful as the painting that drives its plot. From the accidental heist at its beginning to the intrigue that surrounds the painting all throughout, this is a monumental book about art, art theft, and very real human failings.