BOOK: The Goldfinch is narrated by Theo Decker, a young man who retains an uncommon affection for his dead mother. ("She cast a charmed theatrical light," he says.) He recounts how, years earlier, when he was 13, the two of them ducked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art during a rainstorm, where they became victims of a terrorist bombing.
Theo's mother was among the fatalities and, in the confusion, Theo walked out of the museum with The Goldfinch, a painting done in 1654 by Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt's proteges. (Fabritius died later that year in a gunpowder explosion that destroyed almost all of his paintings.) This information barely qualifies as a spoiler, since it occurs in the novel's first pages. What fills out the remaining 700-plus pages is Theo's Oliver Twist-like adventures that include a cast of Dickensian characters, including his father, an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler, whose interest in his son seems limited to cheating him out of money. Theo's Artful Dodger is Boris Pavlikovsky, an adolescent Russian emigre who leads them into adventures that include lots of TV, pizza, and marijuana.
As for the painting, its function in this sprawling story can be summed up by Theo's passing comment that it makes him think of "the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire."
WHY READ? Although a long novel with an epic sweep, The Goldfinch, which takes the reader from New York to Las Vegas and Amsterdam, never seems to lose its way. On the contrary, the story moves forward relentlessly, and picks up momentum near the end when gangsters make an appearance and a shootout ensues. As the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Goldfinch, while collecting reverential reviews, has also taken shots from highbrow critics and other novelists. Let them debate the literary merits all they want; the fact remains that the novel provides a gripping read that literally begins with a bang, and sails onward until it glides to a smooth and satisfying ending.
MAKE IT: Theo's father drinks a lot, and brings the boy to Las Vegas where bartenders know how to make even the most obscure drinks, so why not discuss this novel with a drink bearing the same name? Although not well-known, the drink known as the Goldfinch blends unusual ingredients into a heady concoction that contains surprises, just like the book.
By Tom Valeo, Times correspondent
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.