The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Rating: 3.5 / 5
The setting is Alexandria, Mississippi, where one Mother’s Day a little boy named Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found hanging from a tree in his parents’ yard. Twelve years later Robin’s murder is still unsolved and his family remains devastated. So it is that Robin’s sister Harriet – unnervingly bright, insufferably determined, and unduly influenced by the fiction of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson–sets out to unmask his killer. Aided only by her worshipful friend Hely, Harriet crosses her town’s rigid lines of race and caste and burrows deep into her family’s history of loss.
I have read and loved both The Goldfinch and The Secret History so when I picked up The Little Friend from my library I was expecting to adore it with the same amount of intensity as the others. Sadly, I was disappointed. Donna Tartt is a wordsmith; there is no denying that. She constructs sentences with such lovely description I have to stop and reread the passages many times. The writing and the full-fledged characters are what kept me from putting this book down. Although beautiful, the book could have been shortened at least by a hundred pages. Set up as a murder mystery in Mississippi in the 1970’s, one would think this would be about the young Harriett setting off to find her brothers killer. Instead the plot seems to go off into so many different directions that I found myself getting lost in the switching narratives and changing perspectives. It is a story of southern racial tensions, innocence and cruelty.
Unable to kill her, the cancer had taken up residence within her, and made her its comfortable home- nesting in her ribcage, rooted firmly and pushing its tentacle tips up through the surface of her skin in a matter of black moles- so (it seemed to Eugene) if someone was to cut Gum open at this point, there was apt to be no blood in her at all, only a mass of poisonous sponge.
The main narrative is told about Harriet, the twelve year old sister of Robin. I was quickly drawn to Harriet’s independence and curiosity, her love of reading. Along with her Friend Hely, it follows her as she (incorrectly) assumes who killed her brother and how they plan to get revenge. I enjoyed the other characters connected to Harriet: her depressive mother, completely lost after losing her son, her aunts and their housekeepers, and her wispy sister Allison. While the interactions with her aunts and housekeeper Ida greatly added to the story and to the whole characterization of Harriet, I kept waiting for something more to happen with Allison. Allison is a hazy character: she is awkward and sensitive and at the same time doesn’t care about much. She is clearly depressed. She is found throughout the novel to be sleeping or crying. I felt like there was great potential in her story and it just fell flat.
A mysterious longing had possessed her, a desire to travel far and do great things; and though she could not say exactly what it was she wanted to do, she knew that it was something grand and gloomy and extremely difficult.
Parallel to that, the story also follows the Ratliff brothers (Farish, Danny, and Eugene) while they manage their Meth operation. Various situations with poisonous snakes ensue. While I mostly enjoyed reading about Harriet, the story did lag a lot in some places, especially when dealing with the brothers. I found myself wanting to skim ahead. The brothers are however pertinent to the ending of the book so I understand why Tartt took this direction. In general, the story is so anti-climatic. It is like the ocean on a calm day: there is a little edge, but you’re mostly just floating along. I was always waiting for a bite that never seemed to come. Only at the end did it come, when the parallel stories of Harriet and the Ratliff brothers finally meet together full circle in a suspenseful and dramatic scene atop a water tower.
“That’s Life.” That’s what they all said. “That’s life, Harriet, that’s just how it is, you’ll see. Well: Harriet would not see. She was young still, and the chains had not yet grown tight around her ankles.
Would I recommend? Yes, but not to fans who want a well thought out mystery or a clear, precise plot. The novel has tangents upon tangents, swirling out into different directions. Spoiler: we never find out who kills Robin. One Sentence Review: The writing is beautiful, dark, but languid, and I adored the bravehearted, misguided Harriet. 3.5 stars.
Have you read The Little Friend?
What did you think?