This absorbing novel begins when an ordinary excursion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother erupts in a sudden, senseless act of violence. In the mayhem that follows, Decker's mother is killed and he somehow picks up and walks away with a priceless piece of artwork from the 1600s, "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius. The scene unfolds slowly in harrowing detail and sets in motion nearly every subsequent event in the novel.
Suddenly motherless, Decker's quiet life becomes tumultuous. He is taken in by his friend's wealthy and kind but distant family, and later goes to live with his estranged, gambling-addicted father and his cocktail waitress girlfriend on the semi-abandoned outskirts of Las Vegas. There he meets Boris, a charming but unhinged ex-pat with Ukrainian and Russian roots who becomes his best friend, introducing Decker to a larger world via both Russian novels and drugs.
As he grows older, he continues to secretly protect the painting, both as a work of beauty he has grown to cherish and as the only link to life before the tragedy. Establishing himself as an antiques dealer back in New York as an adult, Decker strives for a calm life, but soon Boris re-emerges and everything he thought was in his past comes back in full force to haunt him.
Tartt, in her third novel after "The Secret History" and "The Little Friend," paints the many different strata of life that Decker floats through with vivid detail, including the dissolute Vegas gambling scene, high-society Manhattan, the world of antique furniture dealing and shady underworld art dens.
The author trains an acute eye on the moral ambiguity of all of her characters in "The Goldfinch": Decker, for example, can be deeply sympathetic but also proves capable of shocking acts both unethical and violent.
The painting "The Goldfinch," which in reality hangs in The Hague in the Netherlands, portrays a delicate bird chained permanently to a perch, looking toward the viewer with solemn dignity, and Tartt's characters wrestle with the question of whether they are any freer than the finch, or just as imprisoned by their own unreliable hearts or fate.