The Short Version: Harriet Cleve Dufresnes’ older brother Robin died when she was just a baby – hung from a tree in the family’s yard. No one knows who did it, but some twelve years later, Harriet thinks she can solve the case. But really, what she stumbles into is far more complex and frightening – that is, the real world.
The Review: How is it that the author of only three novels, two of them massively acclaimed, can have a book that barely anyone has read? What is it about The Little Friend that makes it shrink from view in such a way that Donna Tartt’s canon is essentially “The Secret History, The Goldfinch, and… I think there’s another one?”
Obviously I’m being a little hyperbolic here. Plenty of people have read The Little Friend and, in the course of my reading it, several folks actually spoke up to say that it’s their favorite Tartt novel. I’m not sure if it is mine – my historical ratings would say The Goldfinch wins – but I’m also of the mind that to compare this book to either of Tartt’s other novels does it a disservice. This book is entirely unlike those two novels, to the point of feeling like it could almost be a second debut for Tartt – except that with the publication of The Goldfinch, she’s moved away from this gauzy Southern Gothic and back to the neo-Romantic evocations of The Secret History. So what to then make of this outlier of a novel? Can it be taken on its own terms when it occupies such a curious position in the author’s canon – or must it be somehow compared to or at least considered alongside those others?
Firstly, let’s discuss the Southern Gothic of it all. I’ve been reading short stories by Truman Capote the last few months and had just finished one before picking up this book – so perhaps I was primed for it, but The Little Friend feels like it speaks most honestly and openly to Tartt herself. She was born, after all, in the early 60s in Mississippi… and the description of young Harriet often sounds like what you’d imagine a young Donna to look like. I wouldn’t go so far, of course, to imagine that the novel is in at all autobiographical – but also, it’s hard not to see the author’s life slipping into its pages. How much is a question that likely won’t ever be answered, but the question alone leads a reader to start comparing Harriet to, say, Scout Finch and it’s a hop skip and jump before you’re imagining Tartt as the successor to Harper Lee, which is something that I bet nobody would’ve ever imagined upon reading either of her other two novels.
The novel is ostensibly a mystery, in that we’re introduced to a pivotal moment in a family’s history – the afternoon when little Robin was found dead, hung from a tree in the yard (on Mother’s Day no less) – and then flung forward to a point when Harriet, now teetering on the edge of her teenage years, begins to question what happened to him and whodunit. As children do, she spins together a possible story that isn’t so much bound by truth and fact as it is by seeming plausibility based on circumstantial findings. But the goal is not to find out who killed Robin so much as it is to try and shunt her family back onto the track that it bounced off of when he died – or perhaps even earlier, really. Perhaps the Judge, the patriarch of the family (her great-grandfather), was the one who sent them down this road when he died in debt and they had to sell off Tribulation, their estate. Perhaps it was an ill-advised marriage from the start, that between her mother and father. There are all kinds of questions and considerations of the way in which a few decisions can suddenly set you lightyears from where you thought you might be.
We see this especially in the Ratliffs, characters who start on the periphery of the novel and who eventually come to occupy its center almost as much as Harriet does. Four brothers of almost totemic symbolism at times – one is a slightly icky preacher, one is a homicidal meth dealer, one is the lackey of the family, and the youngest is a gentle giant with Down Syndrome – they are almost more vividly realized that Harriet herself, now that I think about it. Danny Ratliff is a young man and more able, one might say, to comprehend the vagaries of memory and time than Harriet, who is barely more than a child.
Tartt spins a wheel of characters, often sliding into heads for even just a brief moment, and she’s far too skilled a novelist to let that get out of control – but everyone registers as fully realized, there are moments that seem… superfluous. I had no problem letting the “mystery” of the novel remain essentially unsolved and I would’ve been fine with a sort of Middlemarch-esque look at a town, but the novel seems to want to tell you more than you need to know for what the story has set out to be. Perhaps it is impossible to write a novel about a young girl of a family of declining fortunes in the Deep South in the 1970s and not grapple with, among other things, race, poverty/class, addiction, age, memory, drugs, infidelity, and puberty… but there were moments where we’d veer through someone’s head (one of the great-aunts, say) and see a little vignette of a moment that was wonderfully rendered but that, upon exiting it, made me wonder why I needed to know it, other than to get a little more depth and shading to the portrait before me.
Still, Tartt is a captivating prose stylist and every single sequence – whether something slight and almost ephemeral or something pulse-pounding and exciting, like the final showdown (of sorts) between the Ratliffs and Harriet – is a delight to read and admire. This Southern Gothic thing almost seems at times like a better fit for Tartt’s talents than the Dickensian sprawl of The Goldfinch, because she’s able to mimic the idiosyncratic voices of the region perfectly. Still, it seems telling that she veered away from it for her third novel. Perhaps it did get too close to the closely-guarded truth behind the persona of “Donna Tartt”, perhaps the hazy gauze of memory that suffuses the entire book was too difficult to sustain beyond a single attempt, or perhaps it was just something she felt like she had to get out. Who really knows?
Rating: 4 out of 5. The Donna Tartt book that everyone often forgets about is, in fact, perhaps the most fascinating of the three for how different it feels from the other two. She’s attempting something altogether more nebulous and difficult to capture here, something that is not so much based on plot as it is on feeling. Her prose envelops the reader, for sure, but it’s also clear from very early on that we’ll never quite have the full picture of this time and place and moment. The plot is secondary to the feeling – and so it’s perhaps a more complicated book to experience than either of her other, more plot-driven novels. But I’m sure glad I finally picked it up, for it delivers an insight into one of the true titans of fiction that those who’d skip it will never see.