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The novel opens with an adult Theo Decker, the novel’s narrator, in an Amsterdam hotel room, thinking back on his mother’s death and his life after her passing. When Theo was thirteen, he and his mother, Audrey, visit a museum in New York City when a bomb explodes. Audrey dies instantly, but Theo, who had separated from Audrey to follow a red-haired girl, survives. While searching for Audrey after the blast, Theo witnesses the death of an old man who directs him to take the famous Dutch painting The Goldfinch. The man also gives Theo his ring and utters, “Hobart and Blackwell, ring the green bell” before he dies. Theo staggers home, hides The Goldfinch, and learns that his mother is dead.
As Theo’s alcoholic father, Larry, abandoned him some time before the tragedy, he calls friends, the Barbour family, who take him in and treat him well. Theo rekindles his friendship with Andy Barbour and gets acquainted with Andy’s siblings Kitsey, Toddy, and Platt. One night, Mrs. Barbour gives Theo a sleeping pill, which helps him remember the dying man’s message about Hobart and Blackwell. Curious, Theo travels to the business, an antique shop, where he meets Hobie. Hobie welcomes Theo into the shop that he owned with Welty, the man who died at the museum. Hobie lives at the shop with Welty’s niece, Pippa, the red-haired girl from the museum. Theo and Pippa bond over the tragedy.
Theo continues to visit Hobie and Pippa. Soon, however, Pippa moves to Texas to live with her aunt. Before she leaves, Theo and Pippa share a kiss. Hobie teaches Theo about furniture restoration. Just as Theo begins to feel at peace living with the Barbours, Larry suddenly reappears with his girlfriend, Xandra. He insists Theo come live with him in Las Vegas. While packing his things from the old apartment, Theo hides The Goldfinch in a suitcase. In Las Vegas, Theo feels unsettled by Larry’s modern, mostly empty house, but feels comforted by Xandra’s dog, Popper. Soon, Theo realizes that Larry has replaced alcohol with Vicodin and Xandra regularly uses cocaine.
At school, Theo meets Boris. Boris’s mother is also dead. The boys become inseparable and talk about anything and everything. Boris’s drunken father beats him, so he spends a lot of time at Theo’s. Theo and Boris drink heavily and take all kinds of drugs. One day, Naaman Silver appears looking for Larry, who owes him money. Worried about the painting, Theo hides it in his locker at school. Larry demands Theo contact Audrey’s lawyer to ask for money, but the lawyer refuses. Silver returns with a threatening man. Soon after, Larry dies in a car accident. Theo and Boris steal cocaine and money from Xandra, and Theo retrieves The Goldfinch, still wrapped up, and takes a bus back to New York.
In New York, Hobie becomes Theo’s guardian. Theo soon learns that Pippa is moving to a school for troubled girls in Switzerland. When Theo reads that paintings from the bombing are being recovered, he panics. Because he fears people will discover that he took The Goldfinch, Theo moves the wrapped-up painting to a locker in a storage facility.
Eight years later, Theo is Hobie’s business partner. He saved the shop from bankruptcy by selling fake antiques and then buying them back to create a bill of sale that states an inflated value for the piece. One day, a man named Lucius Reeve refuses to sell back a fake. Soon, Theo concocts a scheme to trick Reeve into accepting a false bill of sale. When he meets with Reeve to discuss it, Reeve accuses him of stealing The Goldfinch, the painting that was recently part of a drug-related murder in Miami. During this time, Theo begins dating Kitsey. After several months, the two are engaged.
One day, Theo meets Boris on the street. Boris confesses that he stole the painting from Theo in Las Vegas and replaced it with a wrapped-up book. Theo is shocked as he never realized the painting was gone. Boris believes the painting is in Europe and thinks he can find it. Boris takes Theo to meet Horst, a dealer of stolen art. Before Theo and Kitsey’s engagement party, Pippa returns, and she and Theo spend time together catching up. Theo’s love for Pippa remains intense despite his engagement to Kitsey, which is a relationship based more on convenience than love. At Theo and Kitsey’s engagement party, Boris suddenly appears and tells Theo they must go immediately to Amsterdam to retrieve the painting.
In Amsterdam, Boris plans to meet a black-market art dealer to buy the painting. Boris brings a gun but only for show, he claims. Theo suggests they notify the art police, but Boris refuses. At the meeting, Boris and his cohorts get the painting, but Theo sees one man escape. Soon, men arrive and forcibly take back the painting. During the scuffle, Boris gets shot, and Theo kills one of the thieves. Despite his injury, Boris drives Theo to his hotel. When Theo tries to wash his bloody clothes, he realizes his passport is in Boris’s car, and he cannot leave without it. Alone and ashamed, Theo attempts suicide by overdosing. Theo’s attempt to kill himself fails, and he wakes on Christmas to church bells. Soon, Boris arrives and hands Theo a bag of cash. Boris then explains that he plotted a way to report the painting’s whereabouts and secured a huge reward, which he is sharing with everyone who helped. Many lost masterpieces are recovered based on his tip. Boris credits Theo and returns his passport.
Two days later, Theo faces Hobie in New York. After a visit from Reeve, Hobie now knows the extent of Theo’s fake antique scheme and that he took The Goldfinch so many years ago. When asked why, Theo tells Hobie the entire story. Theo tells Hobie that with his share of the reward, he can repurchase the fakes. Theo spends the next year traveling the world doing so.