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Book Review

The Goldfinch by Author Donna Tartt has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Theo Decker is an average 13-year-old living on the fringes of affluent society with his mother in New York City. His father abruptly left them the year before. His dad was an argumentative alcoholic; both Theo and his mother are happier without him. They have a close bond, but Theo is not perfect. As the novel opens, he and his mother are on the way to the prestigious private high school he attends to talk to the principal about his suspension for smoking on school property.

As Theo and his mother walk uptown to his school, they stop into a museum to wait out a sudden rainstorm. With only a short time before the meeting, his mother hurries to show Theo some of the important paintings. Theo is more intrigued by a girl he sees walking with an older gentleman. When his mother stops at her favorite painting, “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, he listens to her explain the painter’s history and the picture’s significance.

But Theo is still entranced by the girl. So much so, that when his mother wants to run into another gallery, Theo tells her he is going to the gift shop, just so he can follow the girl and maybe speak to her. His mother hurries away, but Theo is near the girl and her guardian when a terrorist’s bomb explodes and the world fades to black.

When Theo wakes up, he is disorientated. The old man lies near him. In a daze, the man begs Theo to save “it.” Theo sees him point to “The Goldfinch.” The man seems panicked that “they” might steal it and put it in the customs house, so Theo hides the painting in a shopping bag. The old man then gives Theo a ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell and buzz the green bell. Theo pockets the ring and stays by the man until the man passes out.

Unable to find his mother in all the smoke and debris, Theo picks up the shopping bag and makes his way back to their apartment, as that is their emergency rendezvous. Overnight, social workers arrive and inform him that his mother was killed in the explosion. While they try to track down his father and grandparents, Theo is brought to the only friend whose address he can remember, Andy Barbour.

Andy and Theo had bonded for a time in elementary school when both boys had been outcasts and bullied. Theo had managed to recover from that time and been accepted by his peers in high school. Andy remained a social pariah. Andy and his parents welcome Theo into their home, but his younger siblings, Toddy and Kitsey, resent his intrusion.

Over the coming weeks, Theo walks through life in a cloud of grief, while the social workers try to find his father. He is also given medication from a psychiatrist, and from Mrs. Barbour, to help him sleep and cope with the anxiety caused by the bombing. The only emotion that breaks through his fog is that of fear when he thinks about the painting he left back at his old apartment. He knows he should turn it in to the authorities, but he worries about the repercussions.

Theo begins to wonder about the ring the old man had given him. After unsuccessfully trying to contact a shop with the name Hobert and Blackwell by phone, Andy advises him to try visiting the shop. Theo rings the green bell and is welcomed into the cluttered antique shop by James Hobert — Hobie to his friends.

Hobie takes the ring and tells Theo it was his business partner’s, Welty Blackwell, but the old man did not survive his injuries. Theo is allowed a brief visit with Pippa, the girl who had accompanied Welty to the museum. She had been Welty’s ward and niece. They had all lived together above the antique shop, and Hobie is helping Pippa recuperate from her injuries. She suffered a shattered leg, broken skull and brain injuries. Theo begins to visit the shop on a regular basis to speak with Hobie and Pippa. Hobie teaches Theo about restoration and antiques.

Theo is crushed when Pippa’s aunt moves her to Texas to continue her recuperation, but he continues to enjoy Hobie’s company. Hobie’s friendship and instruction is a balm to Theo’s soul, and his grief begins to lessen. But his world is turned upside down again when his father arrives unannounced at the Barbours’ apartment and insists on taking Theo to his home in Las Vegas. Theo returns to his old apartment with his father and his father’s new girlfriend, Xandra. As Xandra and his dad quickly decide what they can sell or use in Las Vegas, Theo secretly places “The Goldfinch” into a suitcase and jams it full of clothes.

Having never been out of New York City for more than a holiday, Las Vegas is like another world. His father and Xandra work odd hours and live in a large house in an empty neighborhood. Eventually, Theo makes friends with Boris, the son of a Russian businessman, who speaks several languages and has lived in many countries. The two are soon inseparable and spend their nights getting drunk, smoking pot and doing any kind of drugs they can get their hands on when they get money.

A year passes by without Theo noticing because of his constant drug use. His relationship with his father improves a bit, as his father no longer drinks, but he does take prescription painkillers. For a while, his father makes a lot of money at the casinos. He also does some sports betting.

When a man comes to the door and questions Theo about his dad, he knows things have taken a turn for the worse. In a drugged panic, Theo wraps “The Goldfinch” in paper and packing tape and hides it in his school locker, until his father assures him there is nothing to worry about.

Then one afternoon, his father asks Theo to call the lawyer in charge of his mother’s estate. He tells Theo he needs some money so he can send him to a private school. Theo hesitates, and his father hits him several times, demanding he cooperate. When the solicitor tells Theo that the money has to be sent directly to the school, his father breaks down in horrifying sobs. The following day, Theo’s father dies in an alcohol-related accident.

Still reeling from the effects of the LSD he and Boris did the night before, Theo becomes paranoid and desperate to return to New York before Xandra can call social services. Boris tries to get Theo to wait a day, but Theo refuses. While Xandra is passed out, they raid her bureau and discover a stash of cash and drugs. They split it, and Theo boards a bus bound for New York City. Desperate to find a place to stay, Theo shows up on Hobie’s doorstep, and the old man takes him in.

Over the next 10 years, Theo learns the ins and outs of the antique business and becomes Hobie’s business partner. Unbeknownst to Hobie, however, Theo sells several of Hobie’s hybrid restorations as original antiques. The ruse helps to get the shop out of debt. The money also helps pay for Theo’s prescription drug addiction. Although highly functioning, he cannot make it more than a few days without the numbing effect of some drug or another.

Trouble arises when a customer calls Theo out on a fake antique he bought. The man further suspects Theo has “The Goldfinch” and that he and Hobie have been using it to scam money, as the painting recently turned up in a foiled drug deal in Miami, but was lost again. As Theo has kept the painting hidden in a vault for years, he can believably deny the claim. Theo admits his fraudulent antique dealings to Hobie, who makes him promise to track down customers and repay them.

On top of this business crisis, Theo’s love life is in turmoil. Although in love with Pippa, she does not appear to love him, so he has become engaged to Andy’s sister, Kitsey Barbour. The match helps Mrs. Barbour get over her grief of losing Andy and her husband in a boating accident. As their engagement party draws near, Theo discovers that Kitsey is in another relationship with an old schoolmate Theo dislikes.

Theo takes a walk through the streets of the city, trying to clear his head, and is shocked to stumble across his old friend Boris. It is apparent that Boris now has a lot of money and is involved in some illegal activities. Theo is incredulous when Boris admits to having stolen “The Goldfinch” from Theo’s locker and having replaced it with a text book wrapped in the same paper and packing tape. It was he who used the painting in the Miami drug deal. Boris promises to help Theo get it back.

Boris sets up an intricate plan in Amsterdam and forces Theo to pretend to be a rich American art collector who wants to buy the painting. Once the painting is back in his hands, however, associates of Boris steal it back. A shootout ensues, and Boris is shot in the arm.

Theo and Boris each kill one of their assailants, and a third man gets away with the painting. Boris knows the young man who stole it and leaves Theo behind while he tries to get it back. Theo hides out in an Amsterdam hotel for a week, sick with fever and high on drugs, until Boris returns for him with a lot of money. Boris had decided to take Theo’s initial advice and call the authorities with the information he had about the painting’s whereabouts, and as the painting was recovered, they were given several million dollars as a reward.

Theo returns to New York and confesses everything to Hobie, expecting to be cast out forever. Instead, he and Hobie remain friends, and Theo spends the next year flying around the world, using the money to quietly buy back all the fake antiques he sold.

Christian Beliefs

Preparations are made to celebrate Christmas, but the religious meaning to the season is not discussed. Theo has a snide thought about how his mother, asking the opinion of her boss, is akin to asking, “What would Jesus do?” Hobie had been brought up Catholic and served as an altar boy. He has fond memories of a Jesuit father who had stopped his father from beating him.

Theo’s mother lived with an embittered aunt after her parents died. The aunt had been raised Catholic but left the church for a cult that did not allow her to drink tea or take aspirin. The aunt told his mother that people who did not fear the Lord always got what they deserved. Mrs. Barbour looks at Rembrandt paintings of St. Peter and remarks how Peter looked dutiful and good, yet still with a hint of a betrayer in him.

While in Amsterdam, high and anxiously waiting for word from Boris, Theo contemplates different religious views of worry, including Jesus’ words to “consider the lilies of the field” (Luke 12:27). When Boris returns, on Christmas Day, he offers a toast to glorify Christ on the day He was born. He offers another to the graciousness of God. He tells a mixed up Bible story about a thief who steals a widow’s mite, but then invests it and returns to give her the money he made and together they ate the fatted calf.

Theo recalls how insurance companies use the term “an act of God” to describe a catastrophe.

Other Belief Systems

Theo learns the Barbour family had ancestors in Salem, and he wonders if they might be descended from witches. Xandra learned how to do witchcraft out of book from her high school library. A taxi driver has various religious paraphernalia hanging from the rearview mirror including a turbaned guru.

Theo’s father knows about the Chinese lore of numbers. He tells Xandra that eight is a lucky number in China. He says that number patterns create energy. They are a meeting of earth and heaven. After a particularly good day of gambling, Theo’s dad comments that Mercury was in retrograde and the moon high, so he couldn’t lose. His father also believes in astrology signs and how they affect personalities. His father once used the term rotten luck to explain something.

Theo and Pippa discuss how someone’s birthday might have to do with luck and whether either of them would ever go to a palm reader. Boris once converted to the Muslim faith because he thought the people were nice to him. He does not believe in God or Allah. He believes Islam is a religion of peace. He gives up being a Muslim because he likes to drink and does not want to be disrespectful to true believers.

Authority Roles

Theo’s mother treats her son very well and tries to provide him with a well-rounded education, even with her limited means. The Barbours provide Theo with an unaffectionate but stable home life for as long as he lives with them. Theo’s father is a self-absorbed addict. He never goes food shopping. Theo becomes so malnourished that the school nurse gives him a special vitamin shot and chewable vitamins.

In the year that Theo lives with his father, the two have a few interactions, but most are not positive. The positive interactions appear to come only after his father has a particularly good run at the casinos. It seems the only reason his father returns for him is to get hold of his ex-wife’s belongings so he can sell them for money. Hobie is the only adult to provide Theo with a sense of value and belonging.

Profanity/Violence

The story is filled with profanity. God’s name is used in vain alone and with Jesus, d--n, sake, oh, forsaken, knows, thank and good. Jesus and Christ are used in vain. Lord is also used as an exclamation alone and with good. The f-word is used extensively and in various parts of speech, alone and with the words mother and off. S---, h----, bulls---, d--n and b--ch are used. The word a-- is used alone and with hole, pain-in-the and sharp. B--tard is used alone and with holy. A woman is called a c--t. Other objectionable words are a variation of the n-word, faggot, twat, d--k, d--khead, gay, arse, sucks, shite, jeez, slut, prick, bint, bazooms, tits and darn.

The bomb that kills Theo’s mother also kills many other people. Theo suffers a head wound that gives him headaches, but he is not taken to a doctor for several days. His face, hands and knees are cut. The bomb severely burns the old man’s (Welty’s) face. As he talks to Theo, blood foams out of his mouth. Welty eventually dies from his wounds.

As Theo makes his way out of the wreckage, he sees a hand sticking out from under two chunks of concrete. He sees many bodies sprawled on the floor as if they had fallen from a great height. In the gallery where his mother had been, he recognizes the corpses of other museum patrons he had seen earlier. Theo is later told by social workers that his mother had been hit in the head with flying debris and killed instantly. When the social workers tell him he is to be placed in a foster home, Theo thinks about a news story in which twins were raped and starved by their foster father.

Theo’s father hits him in the face several times and threatens to break his arm if Theo will not call his solicitor and ask for money to be transferred to his bank account. His father is killed when he drives drunk and veers his car into oncoming traffic.

When he was younger, Theo used to worry if his mother was late coming home from work. He thought she might have been pushed in front of a train or stabbed by a bum. Theo and Andy were bullied in elementary school. They were tripped, thrown into lockers, kicked and punched. Andy had almost been suffocated when someone put a plastic bag over his head at recess. Another boy gave Andy a concussion when he shoved his head against the school’s shower stall. Another student tried to put a stick of deodorant up Theo’s rectum. For Andy, the bullying continued at home. His older brother would spit on his food, leave autopsy photos on his pillow and even urinate on Andy while he slept.

Boris describes how he once saw a man shot in the streets of Ukraine. Theo watches helplessly through a window as Boris’ father brutally beats his son. He strikes Boris with his cane across his back, kicks him when Boris falls to the ground and then repeatedly strikes him in the face with his ringed hand. Finally, he hits Boris in the face with the curved handle of his cane. After the brutal attack, the boys get drunk and go to Theo’s house.

Boris lashes out at Theo when he carelessly tries to clean Boris’ wounds. The friends end up in a drunken brawl, half-serious, half-joking, and they end up in the pool. Boris grabs hold of Theo’s ankle and pulls him under the water, causing Theo to have a panic attack as he remembers the suffocating experience of trying to get out of the museum. Boris’ nose begins to gush blood from his father’s beating.

Boris tells Theo about how his girlfriend, Kotku, beat up a girl, pulling out bloody chunks of her hair. Theo’s father used to be beaten with a belt by his father. Hobie had also been severely beaten by his father as a young boy. The local priest had been called in, and he punched Hobie’s father to the ground to get him to stop the beating. The priest had seen welts on Hobie’s back in the past.

Andy’s older brother once hit a boy in the face with a lacrosse stick.

In Amsterdam, Boris is shot in the arm before he shoots his assailant in the head. Part of the assailant’s skull and brain hit Theo. Theo fires a gun and is shocked when he hits another assailant in the shoulder. He fires again and shoots the man in the head, causing an explosion of blood.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

While Pippa is recuperating from her injuries, she sits up and gives Theo a kiss. Xandra sits up from sunbathing and flashes her breasts toward Theo before refastening her bikini top. Boris admits to having had sex with a stranger in a parking lot when he was 14.

Theo remembers having a sexual relationship with an engaged woman of 27 when he was 16. Although not described in detail, he does say that he did not love the woman, but enjoyed the sexual act. Afterward, he felt empty. He feels the same way about his sexual relationship with his fiancée, Kitsey.

Hobie tells Theo all about Welty’s father’s promiscuity — how the man carried on with waitresses, hairdressers and his friends’ daughters. Boris’ girlfriend, Kotku, is described as a girl who will sleep with anyone, including other girls. Boris is warned he may get a sexually transmitted disease from her. When Boris starts to spend his nights with Kotku, Theo starts watching porn on television. Boris tells how Kotku ran away from home when her mother’s boyfriend abused her. She made money by giving blowjobs to men on the street. Boris tells how one of his high school friends gave him a handjob in her little brother’s bedroom when she was high on drugs. After the initial art deal in Amsterdam, Boris thinks they should celebrate by getting blowjobs.

Theo describes how other prescription drug addicts recognized his problem. An older male business associate and addict would hit on him. One of the girls he slept with also had an addiction. Theo had an intimate relationship with a girl already engaged to another man. It is not described in detail.

Boris suggests that Hobie may be homosexual, a theory that Theo never proves but about which he always wonders. Theo has distorted memories of intimate encounters with Boris. In their drunken and drugged states they engaged in homosexual behavior that is not described in detail.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: There are too many instances of alcohol abuse to list here, but parents should know that almost the entire year Theo spent in Las Vegas, (approximately 150 pages of the novel) is one long orgy of alcohol and drugs between Theo and Boris. The boys drink beer, wine, champagne and vodka. Every adult in the novel also drinks on occasion, usually wine or cocktails. Theo’s father is an alcoholic who stops drinking, but then self-medicates with prescription drugs.

Drugs: Theo becomes addicted to prescription drugs and takes them almost daily. The drugs primarily vary between things like oxytocin and morphine. He and Boris regularly smoke marijuana. They also indulge on occasion by taking cocaine, ecstasy and LSD. After Theo leaves Las Vegas, Boris sells drugs to other students for a drug dealer. Theo tells about sniffing glue when he was younger to get high.

Stealing: Before his mother died, Theo and his best friend, Tom, would break into houses and steal beer, petty cash, video games and DVDs. Theo and Boris regularly shoplift junk food because neither of their parents keep food in the house. Theo also steals by selling Hobie’s reproduction furniture as real antiques.

The entire plot of the novel revolves around the fact that Theo unintentionally steals “The Goldfinch” from the museum as a young man and then doesn’t want to give back the painting or doesn’t know how to give the painting back without getting in trouble with the law.

Tobacco: Many characters, including Theo, smoke cigarettes.

Lying: Theo lies to Hobie about how many of his reproductions he has sold. He lies to authorities about where he was in the museum so they will not suspect he stole the painting. He lies to his fiancée because he knows he does not love her.

Movie Tie-In: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare this book review with Plugged In's movie review for The Goldfinch.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

18 and up

Author

Donna Tartt

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hatchette Book Group Inc.

Released

On Video

Year Published

2013

Awards

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2014; Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, 2014

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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