My 7th grade English teacher said there are only 9 plots. Donna Tart's The Goldfinch has them all. This does not help it to soar to new heights. I believe the bird and the two picaresque orphans,Theo and Boris are chained by real tragedies and enslaved by invisible and unknowable tragedies of chance and personality. As I read, I thought of many classic books: Peter and Wendy, Huckleberry Finn, Oliver Twist, and Wuthering Heights. I also am reminded of modern novels: Incredibly Loud and The Dragon Tattoo Series. Iconic movies like Thelma and Louise, Annie, and Unstrung Heroes and probably Citizen Kane are there too.This is not to say that The Goldfinch isn't its own book, but the themes, characters, trials, poor decisions, chance, traumas are not original.
The Goldfinch is a coming of age story of two orphans. Theo, the narrator, loses his mother and gains the The Goldfinch, a small, but prized painting. His sojourn begins in NYC, Up town, to Park Ave and then to Las Vegas, and finally back to NYC and The Village. ( For readers who are not familiar with NYC's stratification, crossing an avenue is like going from one country to another. Tartt shows how the homes, clothes, food, and even language change.). Theo survives. In Las Vegas, he meets undocumented, Russian Boris, who becomes more to him than a brother and a friend. These two lost souls are neglected to the point of abuse by their fathers and try to find solace in alcohol and drugs. They are "lost boys" who form their own family.
The painting, in the novel, has survived two devastating explosions. It is a haunting lifelike painting of a gold finch with a chain around its leg. It's so lifelike you can almost see its heart beating, though it was painted over 400 years ago. The boys, Theo and Boris, are tough enough to survive physical explosions, beatings by their fathers, tremendous neglect, the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse, yet their hearts still beat . Both are devious and honorable, sociopathic and loving, true anti heroes.
Theo is "luckier" than Boris because he has models of virtue in his deceased mother and Hobie, who repairs antique furniture and broken hearts. Although Hobie is a master craftsman and physically and morally strong, a pillar for Theo, he is not a magician. His work on surfaces, re stuffing, replacing broken legs makes the antiques more beautiful and more comfortable, but takes away some of their value as it adds to their value. Hobie is able to provide Theo with shelter like that of the uncles in Unstrung Heroes (dark, crowded, chaotic,warm and protective) and a moral compass which Theo then choses to ignore. Theo is also, a tortured lover, like Heathcliff .
Boris, on the other hand, does not have these truly good mentors. He has a few meaningful conversations with Theo's alcoholic, gambling father and his love for Theo. Boris is a combination of The Artful Dodger, wily and sweet and Lisbeth (Dragon Tattoo), strong and brilliant. He is a victim with no supports, yet he is a savior to Theo who is willing to drive over the cliff, like Thelma.
Donna Tartt takes her time and ours, in this epic novel which I believe screams for judicious editing. Lots of the side stories are just that. They just add to the long flight, using up energy. Some of the characters are well developed and contribute to the boys' character or lack there of. Some do not contribute anything but, "feathering ".
I guess you could rename this True Grit, for the lost boys who try to find their ways and the readers who try keep their tails and tales in sight.