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[642] The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

1friend

” Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had no the day it happened. ” (Ch.1, p.17)

The Little Friend opens with a gripping mysterious death: on Mother’s Day, 9-year-old Robin Dufresnes was found hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of a tree sitting on the overgrown hedge. Atmosphere and tone are perfectly set for a southern Gothic mystery: who or what could have possibly been able to appear in someone’s backyard, while the entire family is within earshot, two kids sitting on the back porch, and grab a little boy and hang him in a tree, and leave no trace. It also provokes that grisly lynching from the recent past.

She tried to calm herself down. Danny Ratliff had killed Robin; she knew it was true, it had to be. And yet when she tried to remind herself exactly how she knew it was true, the reasons were no longer so clear in her mind as they had been and now . . . (Ch.9, p.611)

Death has tainted the family. By the time Harriet reaches puberty, her mother has retreated into a melancholic stupor and her father, a country-club vulgarian, has decamped to Nashville. Harriet and her sister Allison become portégés of their three aunts, one of whom is Libby, a spinster. Seized with a child’s superstitious sense of purpose, Harriet, now 12, takes investigation in her own hands. She begins poking around and soon finds herself mixed up with the Ratliff brothers—a preacher, a meth dealer, a felon, and one of whom, Danny, she makes her suspect.

The book is set in the 1970s, in Mississippi, which, as Tartt brilliantly illustrates, is plagued by the persistence of racial injustice and spooky implication, like dead cats, dying blackbirds, and poisonous snakes. But these literary elements bear no relevance to the story line—depending on what reader wants the story to be.

Harriet, ushered by her curiosity, enters a world of the ugly, the furious, and the reckless. Her investigation, to some readers’ dismay, is inconclusive. The prose is beautiful, full of a fever-dream realism. But the story waxes poetically into a never-ending stream of consciousness. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance of the truth. It’s a portrait of a stagnant family. The ending is frankly frustrating (especially after slogging 600 pages), for most of its length, it lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written.

624 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

8 Responses

  1. I read her first one and found myself slogging through it. I was wondering about this one. Have you read The Goldfinch?

  2. Love, love, loved The Secret History. Read it twice. Listened to it twice. The Little Friend, however, was big time disappointment. The story wasn’t as intriguing as it was supposed to be and not finding out what actually happened to the child at the end really sealed the disappointment. The Goldfinch was much better than the Little Friend, but no where as good as The Secret History. And we have to wait 10 years between books! I don’t think I’ll make it for the next book.
    I am 77 now! If I do, I will probably be at the very least senile! .

    • I really enjoyed The Secret History and hoped she would continue her style. There’s no story in The Little Friend if you’re looking for a “whodunit”. It’s more like a “plainsong” following the death of the 9-year-old boy. The book kept me engaged alright but I was just shocked by the inconclusive ending.

  3. Oh no. A toss? Not good. I have The Goldfinch but you didn’t like Little Friend and I didn’t like A Secret History so my chances of liking Goldfinch are not good.

  4. The ending ruins the book for me although I did enjoy reading parts of it. It’s about loss and grief and how individuals deal with the loss of a child in the family. It almost reads like a YA book for adult. I liked some parts better than others, especially Harriet’s life in school. But no, this one is disappointing, after I slog through 600 pages and you give me an inconclusive answer? That’s a big no.

  5. I’ve heard such negative things about this, I was hoping you’d have something different to say, but it sounds like The Little Friend is just a book I’ll never read!

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