The Little Friend

by Donna Tartt
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1798

In 1992, Donna Tartt took the publishing world by storm with her debut novel, The Secret History. So enthusiastic were both her fans and her publisher that they all waited breathlessly for her next novel. Finally, ten years later, Tartt has published The Little Friend, with readers and the publishing world looking to see if it is worth the wait.

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At the heart of Tartt’s The Little Friend is a mystery and the effect it has on one family. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi, during the 1970’s, the novel recounts the death of Robin, nine years old and left hanging from a tree by an unknown murderer twelve years earlier. His family is devastated; in the intervening years his mother, Charlotte, has withdrawn from everybody and leaves the daily care of her two daughters to Ida, the family maid; his father, Dix, abandons the family entirely except for holiday visits. Allison, now sixteen, sleeps as much as possible and cannot remember anything about the murder. That leaves Harriet, twelve years old and book smart, as the only family member who still wants to know who killed Robin.

Harriet is fascinated by the characters she reads about in books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle and by the real-life magician Harry Houdini, who later in life was committed to revealing the spiritualists of his day for the con artists they really were. Harriet is compelled to solve the murder both because solving her brother’s murder is the right thing to do and because her overactive imagination tells her that it is. Harriet wants to solve it so she can be like one of those people she reads about who do great and heroic things. Furthermore, while practicing Houdini’s trick of holding her breath for long periods of time, she hallucinates yet another person she read about, Arctic explorer Captain Robert Scott, who tells Harriet that she is the only one who can solve Robin’s mystery.

All of these ideas begin to percolate in Harriet’s mind until she convinces herself that she can reveal who killed her brother. She questions Allison, who was four at the time of Robin’s death and was in the yard when it happened. She thinks that Allison may remember something in her dreams; Harriet tries to get Allison to keep a dream diary by writing down everything as soon as she wakes up, but Allison, like everyone else, is not interested. Finally, because of something Ida says, it hits her out of the blue: The killer is Robin’s playmate, Danny Ratliff, who is now twenty years old and a drug user. The fact that she does not have any proof of Danny’s involvement does nothing to her determination to seek out revenge on Danny. Her revenge is the Old Testament version—an eye for an eye—and she is determined that Danny must die, proof or no. With her friend Hely at her side, Harriet sets out to kill Danny any way she can. At first, her attempts to kill him come across as nothing more than little-kid schemes that go awry, but soon they become very serious and deadly.

To everybody of Harriet’s social class, the Ratliffs are the lowest form of life around, and Tartt does everything in her writing power to make that point come across. Danny’s family, with the exception of his youngest brother Curtis (who is simple-minded) are all drug runners and other assorted lowlifes. The fact that Danny is from the poorer side of town makes him stand out even more, even though Harriet herself is of the same social stature financially, if not socially. If Harriet is poor, though, Danny is dirt-poor, a lower class of poor; in a place where social stature is everything, even these little differences are important to everybody Harriet knows, and even to Harriet herself.

Tartt fills in the rest of Harriet’s world with grandmothers, aunts, housekeepers, and other people and places. Setting is one thing that Tartt sets out to establish with great detail, and for the most part it works. Tartt introduces many supporting characters and gets inside their heads through her use of the third-person omniscient point of view. Tartt seems to be implying is that, in the South, everybody has an opinion about everything (including who killed Robin); Tartt gives the reader each character’s opinion about whatever is happening to him or her at the time. This omniscient point of view at first seems fine, but then characters the reader has become intersted in are no longer that important. For example, Allison is the primary character in the first chapter, but for the remaining six chapters she is barely mentioned, as if Tartt herself suddenly realized that Harriet was the true main character.

Tartt’s distinctive writing style is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Her command of language and her novel’s unconventional ending confirms that her work deserves the praise it receives. However, some elements of Tartt’s writing style may also put off potential readers. Tartt’s use of the dash to set off parenthetical explanatory comments is overused, on average once or twice per descriptive paragraph. For example, Tartt writes:

Except for Curtis—who loved everything in the world, even bees and wasps and the leaves that fell from the trees—all the Ratliffs had an uneasy relationship with Eugene. He was the second brother; he’d been Farish’s field marshal in the family business (which was larceny) after their father died. In this he was dutiful, if not particularly energetic or inspired, but then—while in Parchman Penitentiary for Grand Theft Auto in the late 1960’s—he had received a vision instructing him to go forth and exalt Jesus. Relations between Eugene and the rest of the family had been somewhat strained ever since. He refused to dirty his hands any longer with what he called the Devil’s work, though—as Gum often pointed out, shrilly enough—he was happy enough to eat the food and live under the roof which the Devil and his works provided.

In addition to the three sets of dashes in that one paragraph, at least three more appear on that page. A sentence with dashes requires more work to understand than does a sentence without. In a novel that is over five hundred pages long, this writing technique becomes tedious rather than unique, and the story itself takes second place to the technique that relates it.

Tartt used the same dash-writing style (although not as forcefully) in The Secret History, but in her first novel there is a big difference: The Secret History is written in the first person. Her narrator, Richard Papen, is a student at Hampden College, an exclusive New England school. The fact that Papen describes things and events in a way that sounds educated is exactly right because he attends a prestigious college. In The Little Friend, though, Tartt has chosen to tell Harriet’s story in the same fashion. This book’s third-person omniscient point of view, combined with Tartt’s extensive use of dashes on almost every page, makes it work to read the novel, wearying to the reader rather than a pleasure. For those who have read both books, it is evident that the earlier work is more natural in its storytelling.

Along with the main plot involving the murder, Tartt also includes several subplots that weave their way into the main story, all tied together by the thread of a person’s place in society. If there are social structures between Harriet’s family and others, there is also the very obvious one between whites and African Americans. This is Mississippi, and even though it is the 1970’s, integration still has a long way to go. The Cleve’s family housekeeper, Ida, is fired one evening after many years of loyal service because she did not prepare dinner for Harriet. Odean, the housekeeper for Harriet’s aunt Libby, does not attend Libby’s funeral because nobody thought to invite her, even though she had worked for Libby for over fifty years. Even Hely’s family fires housekeepers whenever they feel like it just because they can.

These things affect Harriet in different ways. Harriet knows Odean should have been invited but says nothing about it, which makes her feel worse. When her mother fires Ida, Harriet not only witnesses the separation between cultures but is deeply hurt when Ida shuts Harriet out of her life completely. Along with all this, Harriet must deal with the death of her aunt Libby as a result of an automobile accident caused by her grandmother, Edie. Libby was Harriet’s favorite relative and her death is especially shocking; this event seems to follow a pattern of bad things happening one after another. At Libby’s funeral, it all seems to crash together as Danny sees Harriet and realizes (wrongly) that he recognizes her, and the fact that their paths are destined to run together is inevitable.

Critics were divided on how well Tartt’s writing served her story. Some said that The Little Friendwas as fine a book as The Secret History, while others believed that Tartt actually confused the narrative with her writing style. Tartt tries to give her book a sense of style but fails miserably. Her writing does not flow; the overabundance of dashes, Tartt’s way of spelling colloquial slang terms without an apostrophe (such as “yall” instead of “y’all”), and other stylistic quirks leave the reader trying to figure out what Tartt is doing instead of just enjoying her story. Every time a reader may think that he or she has figured out Tartt’s style, something else comes around that is jarring.

The ending of the book raises almost as many questions as the book set out to answer. Tartt does not tie up everything neatly, which may leave readers either pleased because she did not follow the traditional path or disappointed for exactly the same reason. Most of the conflicts Tartt sets up throughout the book, from Allison’s dreams to who killed Robin, are not resolved. Instead, the plot points become simply a series of things that have happened. Tartt’s realism may work for some readers, but setting up the expectation that these questions will be answered and then not resolving them will leave other readers frustrated. Ultimately, Tartt’s effort at literary realism is overwrought at the expense of her story.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 99 (September 1, 2002): 8.

Entertainment Weekly, November 1, 2001, p. 72.

Kirkus Reviews 70 (September 1, 2002): 1262.

Library Journal 127 (October 15, 2002): 96.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 17, 2001): 1.

Publishers Weekly 249 (September 9, 2002): 40.

U.S. News & World Report, October 21, 2002, p. D16.

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