Review: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

If you’re looking for another The Secret History, this isn’t the book for you. Having read Tartt’s books in random order, and not by publication, I’ve realised that no one will ever be like the other. Each of them is a world within my own, a very special creation unique and different from it’s predecessor.

The Little Friend didn’t grip me in the same way The Goldfinch did, or spark fireworks in my mind like The Secret History. I know many people who read it after The Secret History found it disappointing, but of her three novels this is the one that I think I will remember longest.

‘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.’ Synopsis from GoodReads.

Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, our twelve-year-old protagonist, is a surly tomboy of a child, introverted and literary. Unlike her sister Allison she is coarse and troublesome and unlike her murdered brother Robin she is abrupt and distant. Her Aunts say she is the double of her Grandmother, but no one is brave enough to tell Edie this. Robin was killed when Harriet was only as few months old and life within her family was never the same. Harriet has grown up with a catatonic mother, barely-there father, and a Grandmother and Aunts who have never recovered from the loss of Robin. Yet, the pain goes back further. Old grievances are stewed upon, relived at any moment of disagreement. Sister against sister, mother against daughter, and Harriet trying to cope in the eye of the storm.

The summer before her thirteenth birthday Harriet decides, with the help of her friend Hely, to punish the person she thinks killed her brother. Deciding Robin’s childhood friend Danny Ratliff is to blame harriet and Hely fall into the world of their neighbouring hill billy’s. The Ratliff’s are a family embroiled in crime, drugs…, and Christianity. As Danny becomes more and more paranoid, Harriet becomes more and more determined to punish him.

Much more happens aside from this and to tell you would spoil the feel of the book. However, be warned if you don’t want to know the end of the book avert your eyes now. The killer is never found. To say The Little Friend is a murder mystery is as inaccurate as saying The Secret History was about killing a school mate or The Goldfinch was about a painting. Finding out who killed Robin is not the point of the novel. It’s the Cleve family you explore, observing the irrevocable damage the death of a child can do to a family.

I wanted to know who killed Robin, but I wanted to know about Harriet and her family more. I wanted to know how they changed after their emotional summer. Harriet is at the cusp of teenage life, I wanted to know how she changed. Did she go to live with her misogynist father? Did her grandmother Edie moved in with them? If Caroline awoke from her tranquillised dream.

There is an uncomfortable edge to Tartt’s writing, in her ability to expose the nature of humanity and portray a wide range of personalities. You experience this in the form of Ida, Harriet’s African-American maid. Harriet loves Ida more than her own mother, and the series of events that send Ida away are painful. If you want a simple story about murder and redemption look elsewhere, The Little Friend is far more significant and powerful than that.

I thought more could have been touched on – in the five hundred plus page – on race. When Harriet realises and comes to understand racism it wasn’t enough for me, I would have liked a chapter from Ida’s point of view. Tartt relegates her to a supporting character, and as she is as much a Cleve to Harriet she became as much of one to me. She needed her voice heard.

Have you read The Little Friend? How did you enjoy it?

7 thoughts on “Review: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this, Alice, as I’ve heard mixed things about it; a couple of friends enjoyed it, but those expecting another Secret History were disappointed (as you say in your post). I have it on my kindle, and I like the sound of the psychological aspect of this novel. I’m not sure when I’ll get to it, but I will at some point!

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  2. I’m glad The Goldfinch exists now, because I really enjoyed it, and I think I can reasonably say at this point that I don’t need Donna Tartt to keep writing books like The Secret History. For whatever reason, The Little Friend and I did not get on. I saw all the good qualities that you are describing in it, but they just didn’t hit me.

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    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed The Goldfinch, two out of three ain’t bad 🙂

      I had that reaction to a David Mitchell book today – The Blone Clocks – it was written as well as Cloud Atlas, but I just didn’t get on with it.

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  3. Very good to hear this praised as so many people say they found it disappointing after The Secret History. I read it about ten years ago and adored it, and really want to reread it now. Great post 🙂

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    1. Thanks 🙂 It’s nice to know it’s not all disappointment from readers. I think it is that – and I am guilty of this too – when you read something you love you half want a replica of that from an author. It’s probably why I found Diane Setterfield’s follow up to The Thirteenth Tale so underwhelming.

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