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When he was very young, Theo feared his mother would not return home. He confides details about his unreliable father, Larry, who drank to excess and ignored him. One day, Larry sent a note from New Jersey explaining that he was starting a new life. They let their housekeeper go and make compromises about spending money. The narrative shifts to the day of the bombing as a soaked Theo walks home in pain. He believes that the girl, Pippa, saved his life.
Theo arrives at their apartment building but does not see a doorman. He enters their apartment, hoping that his mother is there, but she’s not. Theo cannot find his phone that his mother has hidden. He feels sick and sleeps, waking after 6 p.m. He listens to a message from his mother’s coworker and gets an emergency number from the television. Audrey is not listed as dead or injured. Theo eats leftovers and waits, anxious and afraid. He pries open a stuck drawer in the kitchen. The phone rings. When a woman from Child and Family Services asks to speak to Larry, Theo says that he’s not there. At two in the morning, he imagines the sun coming up, and the doorbell rings. When Theo sees two strangers, he knows that his mother is dead.
The social workers take Theo to a diner where they ask him questions about his father and grandparents. They tell him Audrey died instantly. Theo gives them the phone number of his friend Andy Barbour, although Theo drifted away from Andy in junior high school. The social workers let Theo stop by his apartment to grab his school bag and then take him to the Barbours, who welcome him. Mr. Barbour takes him to their older son Platt’s room, empty because he is away at boarding school. Audrey’s friends visit Theo, but Mrs. Barbour never lets them stay long. Andy stays home from school and plays chess with Theo, who has trouble concentrating.
Theo’s longing for his mother is a palpable agony. When the Barbours throw a dinner party, the two boys stay in Andy’s room. After a few days, Andy returns to school, and Theo watches Turner Classic Movies. Mrs. Barbour insists that Theo return to school, so he does. Tom Cable avoids Theo, which infuriates him. He blames Tom a bit since Tom is the one who got him suspended. Some teachers tell Theo stories about their own losses, but Theo is numb, grief-stricken, and heartsick.
Mrs. Barbour informs Theo that Social Services have located his grandparents, but they aren’t willing to take care of him. The Barbours will keep him until the end of the school year. Mrs. Barbour notices the ring that Theo sometimes wears. She evaluates it as an antique, perhaps valuable. It has the word Blackwell engraved on it, which triggers a faint memory for Theo. After Mr. Barbour learns that Theo doesn’t sail, they engage in a tedious conversation about nautical flags. When movers go to pack up Audrey’s belongings for storage, Theo thinks about the painting The Goldfinch. Investigators come to school to interrogate him in front of a group of counselors. They show him photographs but none of Pippa or the old man.
In class, Theo fingers the ring. He thinks about the vocabulary word consanguinity and the way the old man’s blood covered him. Mrs. Barbour gives Theo pills to help him sleep. One Sunday morning, Theo wakes with a clear memory about what the dying man said to him in the museum: Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell. Theo calls the business, which is located in the Village, but no one answers. At breakfast, Mr. Barbour rants about sailing. Platt is home for a party. When Theo tells Andy about the business, Andy encourages him to go there in person. Theo takes the bus to the store and waits for it to open in a diner he once ate at with his mother. When Theo finally rings the green bell, a tall, haggard, kind man answers. After Theo shows him the ring, the man introduces himself as Hobie and invites Theo inside.
Chapter 2 is a good example of dramatic irony, a literary technique in which an audience knows more than the characters know. Readers know that Audrey is dead, but the thirteen-year-old Theo who wanders home and waits in their apartment does not. Dramatic irony creates high tension and empathy. It makes readers anticipate the moment when a character’s knowledge catches up to their own. Until the final moment of Chapter 2, Theo holds on to the hope that his mother is still alive. In the final sentence, he understands that she is not.
Beginning with Chapter 3, Theo begins to relate his post-loss life, beginning with his time at the Barbours’ opulent home. He lives there with Andy, his siblings—two younger, one older—and many servants. Theo is disoriented and forlorn, still in shock, unable to recall much about the bombing. However, slowly and gradually, some memories return, sparked by memories of his mother, the ring, and the painting. When he goes into a diner while waiting for Hobart and Blackwell to open, he is overwhelmed by a memory of a time when he and his mother ate there and must leave. This event signals to readers that Theo’s memories are not truly lost, and he might recall more details after all.
Readers gain more insight into Theo’s relationship with his father, Larry, and his father’s parents. That Theo was relieved when his father left, just a few months before the tragedy, further emphasizes how dependent and close Theo was to Audrey. His father is the antithesis of his mother, and readers can be sure that if and when father and son are reunited, it won’t be pleasant or productive. Theo describes his father when he is drunk, stumbling, sleeping on the couch, irritable, and gloomy. Additionally, his grandparents, a grandfather and step-grandmother, Dorothy, are not willing to care for Theo. Dorothy sends a cheesy card with a short note offering a bus ticket, but Theo is not interested in seeing them. At this point in the novel, he is already intent on finding and making his own way. However, Theo is losing weight and lost, unsure of everything.
Despite Theo’s temporary disconnection from reality, he does muster a strong anger when Tom Cable, his former friend, avoids and ignores him. Theo shows that he can feel anger as he imagines beating up Tom in retaliation. He goes as far as to swing a door in Tom’s face and shove him in a hallway, but Tom simply smirks and walks away. Readers are not aware of why Tom would behave in such a way, but the effect on Theo is clear.
In Chapter 3, Theo addresses the two mementos he carries from the bombing: the painting titled The Goldfinch and the ring. He thinks about the painting, still in his mother’s apartment, and fears that the interrogators are going to ask him about it, maybe even accuse him of stealing it, but that doesn’t happen. The painting clearly represents his mother and the trauma of losing her. Similarly, the ring spurs his memory of what happened that day, along with the memory of blood triggered by a vocabulary word in his English class, proving that memories can be triggered by the smallest of details. Mrs. Barbour helps too when she discerns the word Blackwell engraved on the ring. However, it is not until Theo wakes from a dream with the old man’s word clearly in his mind that he realizes that he needs to do what the old man asked him to do: take the ring to Hobie. Theo embarks on the first of many solo journeys to the Village, to the store, and to ring the green bell. Unlocking his memory of the blast is going to be an essential part of Theo’s healing.
The adults who surround Theo mean well, but they do not help him much. The Barbours are awkwardly generous. The counseling staff share sympathy but not empathy. Their suggestions, like his grandparents’ card, are rote and predictable, limp and useless. Teachers try to be supportive by sharing personal stories, but none are like his at all. The law enforcement people try to be kind, but they are simply doing their jobs trying to elicit details. However, when the door at the business opens to reveal a large and strangely dressed Hobie, readers meet an adult who may just offer a new kind of support, one that Theo sorely needs and subconsciously craves.