In which Jill decides she really dislikes Theo Decker: Progress report on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch


Since last posting, I’ve read about three hundred more pages of The Goldfinch. Thanksgiving preparations slowed me down quite a bit, despite having two long weekends in the past two weeks. The past couple of days I’ve had more free time and managed to make a decent amount of progress—close to two hundred pages. the downside of doing a marathon with a book like this, in which fourteen years pass from start to finish, is that today I looked up and realized that I, all of a sudden, sort of hate (okay, not hate, but definitely have some very ambivalent feelings towards) our protagonist Theo Decker. When I started reading this morning Theo was getting shaken down by his father for his inheritance from his mom in order to pay off some typical Vegas unsavories, and when I stopped this evening that same poor kid has become a pill-popping deviant who sells fake antique furniture to the nouveau riche of New York. It is to Donna Tartt’s credit as a novelist that she manages this transformation as quickly and as believably as she does. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

So shortly after Theo arrives in Vegas with his father Larry and his girlfriend Xandra, he takes up with Boris, a kid in his English class who has an even more sordid past than he does. And all of a sudden, our sweet Theo is drinking and smoking and taking Ecstasy and acid and shoplifting. Not surprisingly Larry and Xandra don’t take their roles as adults and positive role models very seriously, staying out till all hours and never seeming to notice if Theo goes to school. Boris is Russian, and he has moved all over with his dad who does something with mining. His mother is also dead, and his father pays more attention to him than Theo’s, but it’s not the good kind of attention, it’s the kind that involves broken ribs and black eyes. Two years go by in Vegas. Larry eventually falls off the wagon, likely because he owes some people sixty five thousand dollars, and dies in a car wreck. At this point, Theo gets on a bus back to New York, but not before ransacking Xandra’s stash of pills, stealing some cash, and re-appropriating the emerald and diamond earrings Larry stole from Theo’s mom before he took off three years before. He, of course, takes The Goldfinch with him too.

When he lands back in New York, he goes to Hobie. He tries to go to the Barbours’ apartment but he runs into Mr. Barbour in Central Park and he acts very coldly towards him (more on this later). Pippa is visiting Hobie for Thanksgiving and Theo’s crush on her is renewed with a vengeance. She’s going to boarding school in Switzerland and isn’t around for long. During this time we are introduced to Theo’s mom’s lawyer, Mr. Bracegirdle, who is the keeper of Theo’s educational trust. It’s eventually decided that Theo will stay with Hobie, which makes both of them happy. Theo is accepted into some sort of early college program at NYU, but we find out it still takes him till he’s about twenty-two to finish college. He takes the painting to an art storage facility in Brooklyn and parks it there. Tartt skips us ahead from Theo hiding the painting to eight years later. At this point he’s twenty-three (I think—at one point there’s mention of him being twenty-six but that math doesn’t quite work out, so I’ve been thinking of him as twenty-three). He runs into Platt Barbour on the street, Andy’s older brother, and learns that Andy and Andy’s dad died in a sailing accident some five months before. Somehow in the past eight years he has had zero contact with this family who almost adopted him. Pippa is living in London and has a boyfriend who is very much not Theo, a fact which torments him daily. He’s addicted to pills, so many different types of opiates that I didn’t even recognize the name of one of them. And he’s been passing off Hobie’s hybrid restorations as authentic antiques, which has made the shop quite a bit of money, but now someone is onto him, or so Theo thinks. Turns out this Lucius Reeve character thinks that Theo has stolen The Goldfinch and that he and Hobie are “renting it out” to various rich people. That’s where I am right now. I’m not sure where this guy came up with this theory about the portrait-renting scheme as of yet, but I hope that I find out soon.

I have this feeling of, for lack of a better word, yuckiness, after reading the past fifty or so pages of this book, basically since Tartt time-jumped to Theo as an adult/criminal. I catch glimpses of the younger Theo who loved his mom and wants to do the right thing, but can’t seem to figure out how. But more often it’s this unsympathetic amoral degenerate in fancy clothes who I want to grab by the collar and say, “Your mother would be so disappointed in you!!! What in the hell are you doing?”

One of our AP English test essay questions wanted us to talk about a work of literature with a character who is not often “onstage” but who has a tremendous influence on the plot or the other characters or something like that. I don’t remember any other questions on any other AP test I took in 1994, but I remember that one. I wrote about the gentleman callers in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, who the characters were always waiting for, but who never came. If I were to write that essay now, I’d write it about Theo’s mom, and also possibly his dad. I wonder how Theo would have turned out if his mom hadn’t died, or if she had died in a less traumatic way. I wonder a lot of things about Theo Decker, but really I hope that he will be okay at the end, and find the person he would have been if none of this had ever happened to him.

Donna Tartt has created a well-rounded, complicated character in Theo Decker. Bethany mentioned in her review of The Goldfinch that Hobie’s home reminded her of Miss Havisham’s home in Great Expectations, that there is a similar timelessness to both. I can see that, for sure, but if, in this analogy, Theo is Pip, I see Hobie more as the Joe character than Miss Havisham. Hobie represents all that is good and kind and true in Theo’s life, just as Joe did for Pip. Pippa is, of course, a kinder version of Estella. And based on my last “visit” with the Barbour family, I’m concerned that Mrs. Barbour is becoming the Miss Havisham of the piece. I’m not sure that my Great Expectations comparison will go any further than this (and I also just realized that I really need to read more Dickens), but The Goldfinch is one of those sprawling, old school novels with a huge cast of characters that reminds me of Dickens and James and Tolstoy. And maybe that’s why this book won the Pulitzer, because it is so much like the classics of old (sort of—you know, but with laptops and terrorists).

And now it’s a sprint to the finish—only two hundred eighty pages to go! I expect Boris and Xandra will turn up before the end, and somehow get involved in Theo’s criminal enterprises. The painting is going to continue to torment Theo, torment him until he kills himself or does something desperate to get rid of it, something that lands him in that hotel in Amsterdam. I’ll be back when I’m done, I promise.


This entry was posted in Donna Tartt, Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s