The Little Friend

The Little Friend

3.1 98
by Donna Tartt
     
 

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The second novel by Donna Tartt,  bestselling author of The Goldfinch (winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize),  The Little Friend  is a grandly ambitious and utterly riveting novel of childhood, innocence and evil.

The setting is Alexandria, Mississippi, where one Mother’s Day a little boy named Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found

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Overview

The second novel by Donna Tartt,  bestselling author of The Goldfinch (winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize),  The Little Friend  is a grandly ambitious and utterly riveting novel of childhood, innocence and evil.

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. Filled with hairpin turns of plot and “a bustling, ridiculous humanity worthy of Dickens” (The New York Times Book Review), The Little Friend is a work of myriad enchantments by a writer of prodigious talent.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Little Friend seems destined to become a special kind of classic. . . .It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it's all just make-believe.”—The New York Times Book Review

“At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, The Little Friend is most surprising when it is edge of the seat scary.” —USA Today

“Harriet [is] one of the most engaging and rounded characters you are likely to find…Tartt’s writing: gorgeous, fluent, visual.” —The Times (London)

“Languidly atmospheric... psychologically acute…. A rich novel that takes you somewhere worth going.” —The New Yorker

“A terrific story. . . . Tartt etches each of these characters with indelible assurance.” –Newsweek

The New York Times Book Review
The Little Friend might be described as a young-adult novel for grown-ups, since it can carry us back to the breathless state of adolescent literary discovery, when we read to be terrified beyond measure and, through our terror, to try to figure out the world and our place in it.
Sven Birkerts
Donna Tartt is a writer who seems to thrive on countering norms and expectations. She published her first novel in 1992, while the ink on her Bennington College diploma was still wet. The Secret History, a heated-up tale of murder and cultism at a very Bennington-like campus, was a publishing phenomenon, gaining an enormous popular success even as it posted respectable scores on the literary charts. Tartt earned instant Brat-pack status, and a whole generation of readers awaited the inevitable cash-in follow-up. Which then, confoundingly, did not and did not come.

Now, at last, a full decade later—and in an entertainment culture like ours, a decade is a lifetime—Tartt delivers The Little Friend, a vast, thickly woven and defyingly unchic work of immersed imagination. The novel is nothing anyone could have predicted.

Most contemporary novelists have forsworn accretions of atmosphere in favor of edgy sketches of the Cultural Now. Not Donna Tartt. Indeed, the first few hundred pages of The Little Friend are almost nothing but background and atmosphere. I mean nothing pejorative—not yet. The dense, steamy mood of a small-town Mississippi summer blends together beautifully with Tartt's extraordinarily patient evocation of the inwardness of twelve-year-old Harriet Cleve.

Gawky, rough-edged, stubborn, afloat in her bookishness and braced against the vast sorrows of family life, Harriet is the least likely of heroines. Yet page by page, as we take in the story of her family's tragedy—the unsolved hanging death of her older brother Robin when she was a very young girl—we grasp the extent of her resilience, that quality that generations agowas known as "pluck." Harriet is the family's one true survivor. Her father has absented himself altogether, working a job in another town; her mother lives in a medicated trance, barely stirring the air as she moves from room to room; and her teenage sister spends most of her time staring into the televisual beyond. There remains only a crew of eccentric aunts, presided over by the formidably peppery Edie, to supply the sustaining vibrations of familial domesticity.

Slowly, the novel gathers its momentum. Her spirit all but annihilated by the despairing inertia that surrounds her, but now feeling the first surges of adult independence, Harriet begins to dream a task, a meaning for herself. One day, impetuously, she inscribes "Goals for Summer" on a fresh page of her notebook. Writes Tartt: "Restlessly, she stared at this. Like the woodcutter's child at the beginning of a fairy tale, 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."

Soon after, Harriet has her realization: Not only was her brother murdered, but she knows who did it. Fixing her suspicions on a former schoolmate of Robin's, one of a network of local ne'er-do-well brothers, she makes it her summer's mission to avenge Robin's death, and to that end enlists her friend Hely, a boy almost as far gone in adventuring fantasies as she is.

As much as I deplore the facile "X meets Y" blurb-generating machine, I will confess that as The Little Friend caught its narrative stride, as Harriet and Hely began poking their noses into the various sordid doings they had unearthed—hiding, spying, eavesdropping—I kept thinking (strike me dead!) "Nancy Drew meets Harper Lee." For from that point on, The Little Friend seems to change not just its narrative mode, but also its deepest fundamental thrust, moving from almost inert brooding to what feels like an atmosphere-freighted adventure story. Alternating sections now give glimpses of the sordid comings-and-goings of the suspect and his unsavory kin. Here we are in the world of the Southern grotesque, among characters we might have met in the works of Flannery O'Connor or the more venomous recent fiction of Barry Hannah. We catch the stench of evil, look into lives lived past all hope of redemption. As Harriet's bravado encroaches on the genuinely dangerous, confrontation becomes inevitable and then, with strong cinematic flourishes, happens. The question is whether the shift from mood-centered scenes to action-driven plot works.

To my mind, it doesn't, not completely. The transition is too dramatic, and the cops-and-robbers contrivances—the clichés of that genre of suspense narrative—overwhelm what had been a complex, if slow-moving exploration of the deep undercurrents of family life and the ongoing abrasions of trauma. Still, Tartt writes with confident mastery in both modes—she has matured considerably as a stylist since The Secret History—and this carefully layered portrait of a remarkable girl's chrysalis summer offers enough substance to gratify the most impatient of her fans. This may not be a novel that is passed from hand to hand with the "You've got to read this" injunction, but in terms of Tartt's reputation among more serious readers, that may be a good thing.
Donna Tartt is a writer who seems to thrive on countering norms and expectations. She published her first novel in 1992, while the ink on her Bennington College diploma was still wet. The Secret History , a heated-up tale of murder and cultism at a very Bennington-like campus, was a publishing phenomenon, gaining an enormous popular success even as it posted respectable scores on the literary charts. Tartt earned instant Brat-pack status, and a whole generation of readers awaited the inevitable cash-in follow-up. Which then, confoundingly, did not and did not come.

Now, at last, a full decade later—and in an entertainment culture like ours, a decade is a lifetime—Tartt delivers The Little Friend , a vast, thickly woven and defyingly unchic work of immersed imagination. The novel is nothing anyone could have predicted.

Most contemporary novelists have forsworn accretions of atmosphere in favor of edgy sketches of the Cultural Now. Not Donna Tartt. Indeed, the first few hundred pages of The Little Friend are almost nothing but background and atmosphere. I mean nothing pejorative—not yet. The dense, steamy mood of a small-town Mississippi summer blends together beautifully with Tartt's extraordinarily patient evocation of the inwardness of twelve-year-old Harriet Cleve.

Gawky, rough-edged, stubborn, afloat in her bookishness and braced against the vast sorrows of family life, Harriet is the least likely of heroines. Yet page by page, as we take in the story of her family's tragedy—the unsolved hanging death of her older brother Robin when she was a very young girl—we grasp the extent of her resilience, that quality that generations ago was known as "pluck."Harriet is the family's one true survivor. Her father has absented himself altogether, working a job in another town; her mother lives in a medicated trance, barely stirring the air as she moves from room to room; and her teenage sister spends most of her time staring into the televisual beyond. There remains only a crew of eccentric aunts, presided over by the formidably peppery Edie, to supply the sustaining vibrations of familial domesticity.

Slowly, the novel gathers its momentum. Her spirit all but annihilated by the despairing inertia that surrounds her, but now feeling the first surges of adult independence, Harriet begins to dream a task, a meaning for herself. One day, impetuously, she inscribes "Goals for Summer" on a fresh page of her notebook. Writes Tartt: "Restlessly, she stared at this. Like the woodcutter's child at the beginning of a fairy tale, 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."

Soon after, Harriet has her realization: Not only was her brother murdered, but she knows who did it. Fixing her suspicions on a former schoolmate of Robin's, one of a network of local ne'er-do-well brothers, she makes it her summer's mission to avenge Robin's death, and to that end enlists her friend Hely, a boy almost as far gone in adventuring fantasies as she is.

As much as I deplore the facile "X meets Y" blurb-generating machine, I will confess that as The Little Friend caught its narrative stride, as Harriet and Hely began poking their noses into the various sordid doings they had unearthed—hiding, spying, eavesdropping—I kept thinking (strike me dead!) "Nancy Drew meets Harper Lee." For from that point on, The Little Friend seems to change not just its narrative mode, but also its deepest fundamental thrust, moving from almost inert brooding to what feels like an atmosphere-freighted adventure story. Alternating sections now give glimpses of the sordid comings-and-goings of the suspect and his unsavory kin. Here we are in the world of the Southern grotesque, among characters we might have met in the works of Flannery O'Connor or the more venomous recent fiction of Barry Hannah. We catch the stench of evil, look into lives lived past all hope of redemption. As Harriet's bravado encroaches on the genuinely dangerous, confrontation becomes inevitable and then, with strong cinematic flourishes, happens. The question is whether the shift from mood-centered scenes to action-driven plot works.

To my mind, it doesn't, not completely. The transition is too dramatic, and the cops-and-robbers contrivances—the clichés of that genre of suspense narrative—overwhelm what had been a complex, if slow-moving exploration of the deep undercurrents of family life and the ongoing abrasions of trauma. Still, Tartt writes with confident mastery in both modes—she has matured considerably as a stylist since The Secret History —and this carefully layered portrait of a remarkable girl's chrysalis summer offers enough substance to gratify the most impatient of her fans. This may not be a novel that is passed from hand to hand with the "You've got to read this" injunction, but in terms of Tartt's reputation among more serious readers, that may be a good thing. —Sven Birkerts

Publishers Weekly
Widely anticipated over the decade since her debut in The Secret History, Tartt's second novel confirms her talent as a superb storyteller, sophisticated observer of human nature and keen appraiser of ethics and morality. If the theme of The Secret History was intellectual arrogance, here it is dangerous innocence. The death of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes, found hanging from a tree in his own backyard in Alexandria, Miss., has never been solved. The crime destroyed his family: it turned his mother into a lethargic recluse; his father left town; and the surviving siblings, Allison and Harriet, are now, 12 years later-it is the early '70s-largely being raised by their black maid and a matriarchy of female relatives headed by their domineering grandmother and her three sisters. Although every character is sharply etched, 12-year-old Harriet-smart, stubborn, willful-is as vivid as a torchlight. Like many preadolescents, she's fascinated by secrets. She vows to solve the mystery of her brother's death and unmask the killer, whom she decides, without a shred of evidence, is Danny Ratliff, a member of a degenerate, redneck family of hardened criminals. (The Ratliff brothers are good to their grandmother, however; their solicitude at times lends the novel the antic atmosphere of a Booth cartoon.) Harriet's pursuit of Danny, at first comic, gathers fateful impetus as she and her best friend, Hely, stalk the Ratliffs, and eventually, as the plot attains the suspense level of a thriller, leads her into mortal danger. Harriet learns about betrayal, guilt and loss, and crosses the threshold into an irrevocable knowledge of true evil. If Tartt wandered into melodrama in The Secret History, this time she's achieved perfect control over her material, melding suspense, character study and social background. Her knowledge of Southern ethos-the importance of family, of heritage, of race and class-is central to the plot, as is her take on Southerners' ability to construct a repertoire, veering toward mythology, of tales of the past. The double standard of justice in a racially segregated community is subtly reinforced, and while Tartt's portrait of the maid, Ida Rhew, evokes a stereotype, Tartt adds the dimension of bitter pride to Ida's character. In her first novel, Tartt unveiled a formidable intelligence. The Little Friend flowers with emotional insight, a gift for comedy and a sure sense of pacing. Wisely, this novel eschews a feel-good resolution. What it does provide is an immensely satisfying reading experience. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Tartt's first novel, A Secret History, was a surprise bestseller. This one is just as long and complex as her first, but it takes place in the South and her characters are younger. Her main character is a 12-year-old girl named Harriet Cleve whose 9-year-old brother was murdered in their backyard on Mother's Day when Harriet was just a baby. That tragedy has haunted the family for years and this book is about her quest to figure out the killer's identity. The story is filled with strange characters, many of whom Harriett is related to, as well as a weird family of crooks, snake handlers and bad guys. There is something Dickensonian about both Tartt's plot and her characters and Harriet will probably remind you of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well. There are sections of the book where Tartt seems to have enjoyed writing so much, she wrote too much, but otherwise it is a good read. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, 624p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
It has been a decade since Tartt blazed forth with The Secret History, but it was worth the wait. Set in small-town Mississippi, her new work centers on the family of Harriet Cleve, shattered forever after the murder by hanging of Harriet's nine-year-old brother, Robin, when Harriet was still a baby. Harriet's mother has withdrawn, her father has left town (though he still supports the family), and Harriet and sister Allison are essentially raised by their redoubtable grandmother, Edie, and a gaggle of aunts who, though mostly married, are ultimately "spinsters at heart." Harriet grows up an ornery and precocious child who at age 12 determines that she will finally uncover her brother's murderer. Whether or not she solves the crime is hardly the point; what matters here is the writing-dense, luscious, and exact-and Tartt's ability to reconstruct the life of this family in vivid detail. Harriet in particular is an extraordinary creation; she's a believable child who is also persuasively wise beyond her years. That debut was no fluke; highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/02.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The successor to Tartt's wildly successful debut (The Secret History, 1992) is another ambitious dark-hued melodrama-destined for big sales, though it's an intermittently creaky performance. The burden of sorrow that afflicts the family of a murdered child, an introspective preadolescent turned avenger and detective, and a clan of redneck malcontents who make Faulkner's Snopeses look like the Sitwells are among the lurid materials tossed amiably together in this very long, very overheated, yet absorbing novel. It begins magnificently, with a tense prologue that describes the discovery of nine-year-old Robin Dufresnes's hanged body on a hot Mother's Day afternoon in a small Mississippi town. The story then leaps ahead 12 years, to show us Robin's mother Charlotte still paralyzed by grief, his sister Allison (unable to remember what she alone presumably witnessed) sleeping 16 hours a day, and her younger sister Harriet-bookish and virtually friendless-persuaded that she knows who killed her brother (the murder was never solved), and how to punish him. Tartt whips up a townful of vivid eccentrics (prominent among them are the Dufresnes girls' four unmarried great-aunts, from whom Harriet solicits details about their family's hushed-up history), creating a rich backdrop against which Harriet and her partner in intrigue, an ingenuous boy named Hely Hull (who adores her), evade embarrassments like church camp and parental discipline, eavesdrop on a passel of sinister snake-handlers (thereby discovering the perfect instrument of revenge), and pit themselves against the local white-trash Ratliff brothers, led by murderous psychopath Farish, who conceals the amphetamines he produces in a remotewater tower. Despite an overload of staggered false climaxes, it's all quite irrationally entertaining. Direct allusions and glancing references alike make clear that The Little Friend is Tartt's homage to the romantic adventure novels of Twain and Stevenson-and, for much of its length, a rather bald-faced imitation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Still, the characters are gritty and appealing, and the story holds you throughout. Tartt appears to have struck gold once again.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400031696
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/28/2003
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
640
Sales rank:
51,181
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.09(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have the Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. Dissatisfaction had been expressed by the elder Cleves at the new arrangement; and while this mainly had to do with suspicion of innovation, on principle, Charlotte felt that she should have paid attention to the undercurrent of grumbling, that it had been a slight but ominous warning of what was to come; a warning which, though obscure even in hindsight, was perhaps as good as any we can ever hope to receive in this life.

Though the Cleves loved to recount among themselves even the minor events of their family history–repeating word for word, with stylized narrative and rhetorical interruptions, entire death-bed scenes, or marriage proposals that had occurred a hundred years before–the events of this terrible Mother’s Day were never discussed. They were not discussed even in covert groups of two, brought together by a long car trip or by insomnia in a late-night kitchen; and this was unusual, because these family discussions were how the Cleves made sense of the world. Even the cruelest and most random disasters–the death, by fire, of one of Charlotte’s infant cousins; the hunting accident in which Charlotte’s uncle had died while she was still in grammar school–were constantly rehearsed among them, her grandmother’s gentle voice and her mother’s stern one merging harmoniously with her grandfather’s baritone and the babble of her aunts, and certain ornamental bits, improvised by daring soloists, eagerly seized upon and elaborated by the chorus, until finally, by group effort, they arrived together at a single song; a song which was then memorized, and sung by the entire company again and again, which slowly eroded memory and came to take the place of truth: the angry fireman, failing in his efforts to resuscitate the tiny body, transmuted sweetly into a weeping one; the moping bird dog, puzzled for several weeks by her master’s death, recast as the grief-stricken Queenie of family legend, who searched relentlessly for her beloved throughout the house and howled, inconsolable, in her pen all night; who barked in joyous welcome whenever the dear ghost approached in the yard, a ghost that only she could perceive. “Dogs can see things that we can’t,” Charlotte’s aunt Tat always intoned, on cue, at the proper moment in the story. She was something of a mystic and the ghost was her innovation.

But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. And–since this willful amnesia had kept Robin’s death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible form–the memory of that day’s events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirror-shards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.

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