I decided to read this book during a visit to the Mauritshuis, where Carel Fabritius' 'Goldfinch' is one of the masterpieces on display. A good friend of mine does guided tours there and I was lucky enough to be able to take part in an exclusive one he did for his friends. Of course, he also stood still by this wonderful, though sad painting of the beautiful bird that's held captive solely for entertainment of it's owner.
Which is basically true for the main character in Donna Tartt's book and the painting, too. Young Theo and his mother are visiting an exhibition in a New York museum when terrorist attack it. His mother dies immediately, but Theo, who was in another room at the fatal moment, survives. He stays with a dying man, who gives him a ring and hints to bring it to his partner, Hobie, while slowly fading. In his confusion, Theo takes the painting that he and his mother had admired while leaving the dusty building.
This is the point where Theo's maelstrom of tragedy begins. Initially, he's taken into the home of his friend Andy's family. He doesn't dare to return the painting at first and, at some point, he realizes it's now too late - especially when he starts helping out in Hobie's antiques store. Somehow he doesn't want to part from it anyway, he loves looking at it.
Just as he's going to find his way back into life because he feels loved by and part of Andy's family, his alcoholist father suddenly turns up. He takes Theo to his home and his drug dealing girlfriend in Las Vegas. It's there where Theo meets Boris, who introduces him to drugs. Theo thankfully uses narcotics to forget the actual agony of losing his mother and the happy life he could have had.
And he more than thankfully hides in delirium when newspaper articles appear about other paintings that were found after being believed destroyed during the museum's attack once he's returned to New York. At that time, he works with Hobie again, reopening the antique shop and earning money by selling furniture that Hobie restored as if they were originals. Convinced he AND Hobie are going to end up behind bars when the painting is found, he hides it in a storage safe for years, but doesn't stop his illegal selling activities nor his drug use.
Years later, Boris returns back into his life and has shocking news: he lost the painting. It's only now that Theo finds out he had never had it since Las Vegas, for Boris stole it from him when they were still teenagers and Theo never had had the guts to open up the package, in which he sealed the painting when his father had almost discovered it. He's been using it as a collateral in drug deals for years. The quest to return the painting leads them to a thrilling hunt in Amsterdam, to murder and Theo's almost-suicide - but eventually to a happy end.
This book combines coming-of-age story of a traumatized boy with a thriller and is done so so very pleasantly. I thoroughly enjoyed the extensive descriptions of, e.g., Hobie's restoration work, for I love art and all things old. At a certain point I was afraid it was going to be too much "I was so drunk/stoned and slept for 2 days straight" as in The Secret History, but there was a twist in the story just before that happened, thank goodness. I enjoyed balancing on the edge of liking-detesting the main character and to be a witness of his struggle to get through life. He isn't a typical main character, for he's not a hero and no "good guy" either. But nonetheless, Donna Tartt manages to capture the reader over almost 900 pages - not in the least because of her clever structuring - a great accomplishment.
The only thing I didn't like was the essay-like monologue by Theo on ethics and carressing things beautiful. I was somehow waiting for another plot twist, which didn't come. If those 30 pages would have been placed outside of the story by calling it Epilogue, I would have given it 5 stars, probably.