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Donna Tartt's novel The Little Friend is an excellent example of contemporary American Gothic literature. I absolutely love the character of Harriet, and actually preferred TLF to The Secret History. I realise that most people don't like the ending (or lack thereof) but I thought it was incredible, the way that Tartt underlined the whole message of the text in that last exchange. Not everything needs to be neatly resolved, and I think there are clues throughout the novel for the reader to draw his/her own conclusion.
Everything in the novel is somehow tinged darkly by the death of the child in the prologue. Robin's murder is central to the plot, and he becomes the ghost of the story. In a way, The Little Friend is a Bildungsroman, chronicling Harriet's too-soon graduation from childhood to the adult world. Her innocence is first corrupted by the foregrounding of her brother's murder, and then by the acts she both attempts and witnesses.
When I started reading this book, I wondered if I would ever finish it. Much as I love to read, and always have my nose in some book or other, 555 pages of large hardback (with fairly small print) was pushing it a little for me. About ten pages in, I was so engrossed I wondered what I would do when it was over. It took me about a week and ranks among my favourite reads of all time.
The Little Friend, long-awaited follow-up to Donna Tartt's debut novel The Secret History (which I loved), as expected, was not a disappointment. It takes us deep into the heart of a hot Mississippi summer as we follow little Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, whose older brother Robin was murdered 12 years earlier when she was just a baby.
Robin is found hung in a tree in the back garden at the start of the book. Bright, vivacious Robin was Harriet's polar opposite, and his loss changed the family dynamic in many ways. Their mother, Charlotte, withdraw and proved little help in raising Harriet and her older sister Alison, leaving them in the hands of their housekeeper Ida Rhew. Harriet's nurturing came from her force-to-be-reckoned-with grandmother Edie and three elderly aunts - Libby, Tatty and Adelaide.
During the long hot summer break, determined Harriet, aided by her best friend/loyal admirer Hely, decides to figure out once and for all who murdered her brother. Once she has a name in her head is adamant that they will be punished for what they have done. The events that follow cause her to become tangled up in a family she does not want to be part of, and she puts herself in quite a bit of danger as she runs wild, without sufficient adult supervision.
Although the plot is not very complex, I could not have correctly predicted the exact ending, and Tartt provides us with enough interesting anecdotes and tidbits of family history that I never got bored even as the storyline lagged in parts. I began to love the characters, who are so well outlined I could practically touch them. The aunts could not be any different - sweet, patient Libby in start contrast with Tat, who is no natural around children. Edie is the backbone of the family and dear old Ida Rhew is more than just an employee, she's a second, more functional, mother to the two girls.
I could also picture perfectly the backdrop of the story. I could imagine exactly what their grand old house, Tribulation, looked like. I could almost feel the damp, sticky nights and hear the crickets chirping. Donna Tartt is amazing at giving away detail without making you feel as though you have read a lengthy description, something I hate in novels. She paints such a vivid picture that you feel as though every snippet she gives away is important somehow to the plot.
As murder mysterys go, this is not a typical crime book. It is a literary piece, and concentrates far more on the relationships within the characters and the consequences of actions, rather than solving a puzzle. It is at times suspenseful, at times funny, and at times sad. It is, however, always beautifully written, and I now see precisely why every bit of those 555 pages was necessary.
This is a wonderful book and really I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates good writing and doesn't need a plot that is always fast-moving.
You can find The Little Friend at all good bookstores or libraries. It isn't available as an ebook as of yet. It is retailing in paperback for £6.98 currently at Amazon.co.uk.
This book is one of the top 50 books to read of all time, and it most certainly deserves its place for the quality of writing. The scenes and characters evoked are realistic and well described. The actual plot, however, is not as expected. It verges off from the storyline that permeates the first couple of hundred pages and takes a backseat to the rest of the story, which brings frustration and disappointment to the reader when trying to understand why the writer bothered to put the first chapter in - the only reason it seems to be there is the fact that it is beautifully well written, but it seems to be almost a different story to the rest of the book. Towards the last few chapters, the book tends to drag and although you can appreciate the quality of the writing, the real plot does not achieve any kind of development towards a conclusion.
I spent about an hour yesterday writing a review of this book... and then promptly lost it when I tried to post it. Why? Because I chose to ignore the nice, red, visible, and as it turns out, eminently sensible advice placed conveniently above the text box, and did not either type my review elsewhere, nor save a copy before posting... But is is a testament to how much I loved this book that I am determined to try again - and again and again, if need be - until I have shared with the world how great this book is, and convinced you all to go out and buy your own copy. (Actually, if I'm honest, I also want to convince people to buy it because I got a cut price copy in Tesco, and feel that I am cheating Donna Tartt of her rightful earnings if I don't at least persuade someone who might not otherwise have bought the book to do so... it's a balance thing. I like balance.) To begin at the beginning - well, sort of. I was wandering through Tesco a fortnight ago, and could not help but notice a stand of books, all priced at an amazing £3.73. I was stunned and delighted, because if I have one weakness when it comes to impulse buying, it's books - and books are expensive. If I was offered a thousand pounds to spend in one go in any one shop of my choice, it would probably have to be a bookshop. It would definitely have to be a bookshop. AND I'd have problems cutting the list down to the £1000 mark. (I would.) But on this day, despite the amazing prices, I had literally a tenner to my name, and no food in the house, and so I regretfully bypassed the aisle, knowing that if I were to go within ten feet of the books, I would convince myself that I could live on rice and lentils for a week, as long as I had something to read. However, a week later, my beloved father had transferred money to my account (I'm a student, not a sponge, incidentally) and I felt I could more than justify such a minimal expenditure. Amongst the other bo
oks on sale, I spotted 'The Little Friend' by Donna Tartt. Having just a couple of months ago re-read 'The Secret History', I had been thinking about buying 'The Little Friend' but had been dubious, because I felt I couldn't like it as much as I had 'The Secret History' (henceforth TSH) and also because i had read some lukewarm reviews of it, comparing it disfavourably to TSH. (Including one in the Economist, which I usually trust, but howandever...) How wrong could I have been!! TSH was great - gripping, enthralling, absorbing, however you want to describe it, I just couldn't put it down. 'The Little Friend' (henceforth TLF) was all that but also beautiful, moving, and so incredibly well-written and observed. I won't get into the details of the events of the story - firstly because I hate spoilers, but also because if you think that what the book is about is what events are described, you're horribly mistaken. Suffice it to say that Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is 12 years old - almost 13 - and facing into a long, hot summer, twelve years after the murder of her older brother. Her mission for the summer - and she's a child who likes to have a mission - is to find out who killed him, and avenge his death. (Ambitious, no?) Along the way she begins to truly grow up - and learns some hard lessons about truth and reality. That's all you're getting on the plot front. But read this book - not for the plot, much though I liked it, but for the characters and for the ambience. Read it for the crazy snake-handling preacher, the crotchety stern grandmother (and the racist bigoted miniature other grandmother) the wispy transparent grieving mother, the oppressive heat of the summer which you can feel all the way through the book, making things feel unreal and lending many of the events - those that take place outdoors, anyway - a hallucinatory feel. Read this book for the brilliant wa
y it captures the fragility of childhood friendships, the fragility of all relationships, I suppose. Read it for the sheer diversity of the people you get to meet and temporarily live cheek by jowl with - there's hardly an unambiguous character in the book, and that alone is a feat. Who writes a book entirely populated by three dimensional characters? Just read it. Please? (And preferably buy it full price, and if possible from an independent bookshop. I still feel guilty about buying it from Tesco!) P.S. I'm knocking off one star, because brilliant though it is, it's still not quite as good as my favourite book of all time, and also because I hate to go around calling things perfect. But that's all.