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The Little Friend
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355 of 382 people found the following review helpful
I don't understand what's the matter. There seems to be a rampant boycott going on about this novel, but I must say I find it ridiculous. All the naysayers are calling this book boring and the author racist.
Come on!
The book is set in the summer of 1970, and it should be noted that the social climate is captured with pitch-perfect ear. Harriet is a very well developed character and on her back she carries the whole weight of this engrossing, captivating and mysterious narrative, populated by eccentric characters and bizarre situations. Through her eyes we see how life can change in the blink of an eye. The horror of discovering the truth beneath the lies we have come to believe staunchly results in a chilling climax.
Maybe I will be stoned by all the readers who don't like this book or don't get it. Anyhow, Donna Tartt's voice resounds long after closing the final pages. And it does what not many novels can: it can make you laugh and shudder sometimes in the same chapter, and that IS the purpose of the novel: it transports you to a place you had not been before, to the skin of someone else, and for a moment, you are Harriet Cleves Dufresnes and live through her, the darkest, most significant summer of her life.
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93 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2005
Donna Tartt, a classicist, structures this novel like a Greek tragedy. The death of Harriet's brother Robin is not the central event in the novel, but the starting point that sets the tragic events in motion. Harriet, believing that she can solve the mystery of Robin's death, with just a hunch to guide her and the worshipful boosterism of her equally ignorant chum, confronts a young man from the wrong side of the tracks in an escalating conflict that comes to a battle of life and death. Finally, Harriet, who is mostly abandoned by her family, has to face this threat totally alone--and she has to reckon with her own hubris in bringing about this crisis. She will be forever scarred by what she has done, but she is wiser for it all. Two families are on a collision course,and the novel is resolved when they meet in a horrifying climax. To say that the ending is not resolved is not to understand the point of the book. Empathy is generated by understanding the heartbreak of the wasted suffering on the part of both parties --neither one is totally innocent or guilty. The last chapter just illustrates the total ignorance of the rest of the community of what has happened, and how the main characters will have to bear their grief alone for the rest of their lives. The comedy of life in a small town rises to the level of tragedy--fate takes its course once the events are set in motion, leaving the reader with a profound catharsis.
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76 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2002
I think a lot of readers have approached this book expecting to read (a) a mystery that is wrapped up neatly at the end or (b) a follow-up to _The Secret History_. This book should not be read as a mystery. It is, instead, a vivid coming-of-age novel about a little girl in the South of the 1970s. As a Southerner who grew up in a town that was very similar to Alexandria, Mississippi, I can vouch for the accuracy of Tartt's portrayal. It's all there: the crazy extended families (all living nearby and constantly in each other's business), the Pentecostal preachers, the Baptist church camp, the tangled and conflicted ways that black people and white people relate to each other.
This novel follows in the tradition of great Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Ellen Gilchrist.
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152 of 169 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2002
Donna Tartt has certainly not lost her craft, in The Little Friend, she proves herself to be a great writer. I enjoy her writing style and I didn't find the book boring...but it was ultimately frustrating.
Her ability to draw such realistic and compelling characters, especially Harriet, is impressive. Personally, I loved Harriet. I found her realistic and engaging.
The main problem is that the book is overly long, not a whole lot happens, the minimal plot is not particularly suspenseful or dramatic, and the ending is puzzling--what are we supposed to take away from this well-written book about a compelling young woman? While I like novels with more open-ended ideas, I was ultimately left feeling empty, not inquisitive.
I can appreciate Donna Tartt's writing, and Harriet managed to get under my skin, but the novel as a whole, didn't do it for me.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2007
Hands down, no doubt about it, this is the best novel I have read in a while. It was dangerous to pick it up at night, because I would keep on reading, and reading, and would bargain with myself, "only to the next paragraph", only to get deeper in the story. All along, I thought of Dickens. This is a complex novel, with a huge cast of characters and plenty of subplots and background commentary.

In a nutshell: Harriet's nine-year-old brother was murdered in his own backyard, when Harriet was just a baby. This event destroyed the family: the mother never recovered and the father accepted a job promotion in a different state. Harriet is an odd, very unconventional 12-year-old with a vivid imagination, who admires Houdini and Captain Scott. She sets on a quest to discover who killed her brother, and enlists her best friend Hely, a boy who is as scatter-brained as Harriet is sharp. This quest, which starts innocently enough, gets them entangled with a scary family of methamphetamine dealers, at great risk for their lives.

Harriet's extended family, her grandmother and her three sisters, along with the black housekeeper, make for a rich cast that enhances the story. Some of my favorite passages had to do with Harriet's thoughts about Ida, the black maid. The description of the relationship between Harriet and her aunt Libby has to be one of the most satisfying pieces of writing I have ever read.

And then there is the sociological landscape of the novel! Black-white relations in Mississippi in the early 70s, the class divide between whites, the stigma of being born on the wrong side of the tracks, the religious zeal that pervades everything, the world seen from the eyes of a smart girl, who is hardly ever taken seriously by her family:

"Quietly, Libby turned to Harriet for a long moment, and her watery old eyes were steady and compassionate.

It's awful being a child," she said, simply, "at the mercy of other people."

I can't believe the poor ratings! If you get dismayed at 600+ pages, this is not for you. If you are looking for a murder mystery, this is not for you. If you want tons of action and dialog, stay away. This novel is, for me, the essence of pure literature. What am I supposed to read after this? I am once again reaffirmed on my belief that the best fiction in this country comes out of Southern women. Amen!
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172 of 205 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2002
By way of background, I graduated from Ole Miss, which Tartt attended before transferring to Bennington college in Vermont, fictionalized as "Hampden College" in her first novel, "The Secret History." Way back when TSH first came out, I noticed a stack of signed copies in Square Books on the Oxford, Mississippi square, and bought a copy. I was absolutely mesmerized by the book, and read it in basically one long, continuous sitting over the course of a weekend. I thought it was the best book I'd ever read, and to this day I still count it among the best books I've read. I've given copies of TSH as gifts numerous times over the intervening years, and I've recommended it even more frequently.
Thus, it was with great excitement that I awaited the publishing of Donna Tartt's second novel. I couldn't believe that, after the phenomenal success of TSH, she was taking as long as she was to write her second book, and several times over the years I went to the Internet to try to wade through the many conflicting rumors as to when her next book might arrive. I read the initial reviews of "The Little Friend," which were not very positive, with skepticism, and I hoped very much that they were inaccurate.
Having read the TLF, however, I am very, very disappointed to report that the reviews were, in fact, accurate, and that "The Little Friend" is not even in the same league with "The Secret History."
The primary problem with TLF from my perspective is that it is, in places, boring. Mind numbingly, excruciatingly boring. By the end of the first 100 pages, you have the gist of the plot down and, unfortunately, can also anticipate its resolution. However, Ms. Tartt spends the next 300 pages going into so much detail about the daily affairs of the protagonist, Harriet, and her friend, Hely, their families, etc., that I was literally looking ahead in the book wondering when the pace would pick up. I read a lot, and I have very rarely put a book down without finishing it, but I have to say that I was tempted to do so with this book. I assume that this middle section of the book was intended to fully develop the characters - which it does, but I never found myself caring for or even really liking the characters. My basic attitude throughout the bulk of the book was "let's get this over with so I can move on to read something else" - and at 550+ pages, it's not a short book.
To be fair, the ending is a little more interesting, and there are some fairly novel twists thrown in. Ms. Tartt is a very gifted writer, and there are sections of this book that are beautifully written, but they are like diamonds scattered in the rough that is the boring bulk of this book. Despite the nine years between TSH and TLF, TLF feels as if it was sloppily written and edited - there are several noticeable grammatical errors and redundancies in descriptive language. (For example, on page 82: "In their midst sat Mrs. Godfrey, glassy-eyed, who sat eating ice cream from the harlequin-patterned dish." How many "sat"s do we need? Or, on only the second page of the prologue, page 4 of the book: ". . . the memory of that day's events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirror-shards of nighmare which flared at the smell of wisteria . . ." and then, in the very next sentence: "Sometimes, these vivid flashes of memory seemed like pieces of a bad dream, . . ." Why use "nightmare" in one sentence and "bad dream" in the second? We get the point. These sections read like a first draft that was never properly edited.) It's almost like Ms. Tartt had too much time - because this seems to me like a 250-page novel that has been stretched into a 550+-page novel.
If you want to read breathtakingly beautiful descriptive passages, read "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy. If you want to read a modern Southern gothic, read the amazing "The Heaven of Mercury" by Brad Watson.
I am sorry to have to write a negative review of this book - especially since I loved "The Secret History" so much and waited so eagerly for the publication of "The Little Friend," but this is my honest opinion. Nonetheless, I'll still be looking out for her next book, hoping that it is more like TSH than TLF.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2013
Had I paid any attention to the reviews at either Goodreads or Amazon, I might have been dissuaded from reading The Little Friend by those who didn't like the book, calling it "boring", "too long", "bad ending". That would have been a sad thing, because I'm putting it in that Difficult-to-Get-Into club of mine called "One of the Best Books I've Ever Read". It's very hard for me to see this as anything less than a 5-star book, so let me try to convince you readers who are contemplating reading it but are on the fence because of the book's detractors. However, let me temper that with a caution to those who want a quick read, a tied-up-in-a-bow ending, or who aren't willing to get deep into a character and the character's milieu---if you are one of those, go with a John Grisham. The paperback edition I read was a hefty 624-pages, and I savored every one of them.

The editor's description of The Little Friend (TLF) will lead you to believe that this is a murder mystery, and perhaps that's why some readers are ticked off that it lacks the typical and expected structure of a murder mystery. In fact, that's likely what enticed me to buy it. But while TLF does, indeed, begin with a mystery---the 12-year old, unsolved murder of the brother of the main character, Harriet. The mystery is also the impetus for the quest that is the book's focus. But the mystery is simply the background and jumping off place. This is really a story about Harriet, one of the most compelling characters I've ever encountered; the town where the story takes place (Alexandria, Mississippi); and the recently desegregated and deeply racist social climate in which the action occurs.

Harriet was a baby when her brother, Robin, is murdered. When we meet her 12 years later, she's like an urchin from a Dickens' story. If it were not for the inconsistent and eclectic parenting she receives from the family's African-American housekeeper, her stern and cold grandmother, and a gaggle of great-aunts, Harriet would be just a step away from being raised by wolves. Her mother has been in a drug-induced slumber since the day of the murder, and her father lives in Nashville and only visits on holidays.

Harriet is an old soul. She's intelligent, indomitable, opinionated, delightfully odd, and very well-read. The tales of Kipling, Stevenson, Doyle, and those of true-life adventurers fuel her imagination. A summer without the structure and diversion of school, and the general lack of parental supervision the children receive, provide a fertile ground in which Harriet and her devoted acolyte, Hely, set out to find Robin's killer. But, again, though it's an important one, this "detecting" is simply the backstory.

TLF's prologue is one of the best I've ever read. It begins: "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, which is when the Cleves usually had it." Its 15 pages concisely and brilliantly provide us with everything we need to know to prepare us for the rest of the story. We clearly understand the family dynamics and a bit of its history. We meet many of the characters and, in very few words, we learn a lot about each one of them. We know the horrific event that forever after alters the family and sets in motion its disintegration. But from that point forward, each subsequent chapter is minutely detailed. Many readers found that maddening, but others, like me, loved and appreciated those details. I found myself rereading passages to savor them, and noticing now beautifully crafted and essential all those lovely words were.

One of the things that I found the most amazing was how well Tartt captured the time and place: the casual and cruel racism, the decaying town, the cadence and sound of the voices across the spectrum of social classes; and the thinking of the children: their fertile imaginations, their terrible decisions, the pains they must endure at the hands of the careless and unthinking adults who rule their worlds. My early childhood was spent in a small Missouri town in the 1950s, and Tartt's descriptions brought back the sights, sounds, and feelings (both physical and emotional) of that time and place.

Other reviewers have compared TLF to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I was also making those comparisons. But to be clear, TLF by no means mimics those books---it holds its own and is unique in its voice, but it shares the keen sense of place and the uncanny understanding of the characters' interior lives that those other books have.

Many reviewers complained about the book's ending. I'm trying not to spoil it for readers by what I'm going to say next, so if you are even a tad concerned about that, stop reading this review now. The ending is not all tied up in a bow, with the author going over clues we should have picked up on, and detailing for us why the killer did what he/she did. If you are expecting such an ending, this book won't deliver. But I contend that Tartt wrote the perfect ending for this particular book. It's is purposefully and carefully written, and A Little Friend would be a completely different book with anything but the ending Tartt gives us. I believe that the Prologue and ending are a pair of perfectly matched bookends.

I loved this book and highly recommend it for people who want beautifully written prose and a whopping good story. I'm in awe of Donna Tartt's talent and insight into the human spirit, and immensely glad I found her. I'm reading Tartt's The Secret History next.
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68 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2002
Since "the little friend" came out in Belgium september 14th, we could read it here about a month before the people in the USA.
Having loved "History", I was excited to read the new novel. Let there be no mistake, it is beautifully written, in the same hard worked-on style, with sentences of 20 lines (and more), with amazingly good observations and characters that are very well developed.
But, I'm affraid the book will stay on the shelves, half read, because, in my case, the characters don't interess me, I don't give a damn about what happens to them.
Sorry, I wish my English was better to express what I feel, but it comes over to me as if the novel is too polished, all raw edges are gone and what is left is "belleterie" with beautiful descriptions of nature and time and clothing and furniture and...
But what about the involvment with what happens to the people in the book? Frankly the story doesn't grab me by the throat,(nor anywhere else, for that matter) and aren't a good story and strong characters the most important things a good book needs?
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2002
I'm likely one of the few reviewers here that has not read "The Secret History" (I still intend to). Perhaps that is a good thing, as I approached the "The Little Friend" with no pre-conceived notions about Ms Tartt's ability to write. I am left with no doubt about her ability to write, and write and write and therein lies part of the problem. This book could easily have been trimmed by a couple of hundred pages, and likely been far better for it. I have no problem with detail, but copious quantities of it that seem to have no purpose other than to fill the page... well that just seems like a lot of filler to me. Another reviewer said this book kept putting them to sleep, and I confess I had the same reaction, usually I'm good for hours of steady reading, with this one 20 minutes and my eyelids were drooping, not a good sign. When a book is over 500 pages in length it better be able to hold my attention, this one did not. I never cared for any of the characters, even Harriet our protagonist got on my nerves. So readers, I'm with the consensus on this one, not a stellar work on any level.
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47 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2002
I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new novel by Donna Tartt for ten years. I bought the Secret History the first week it was out and have since worn out three subsequent copies. I reread the book at least 4-6 times yearly and never fail to be entranced and drawn in by the intensity of the story and luminosity of the characters. It is therefore not surprising that anything less in a follow up book would be a dissapointment. The sad truth is that The Little Friend is mediocre at best. While not poorly written, it feels that Tartt is stetching to fill page after page with endless discription and her action scenes lack any vibrancy at all. The characters are dull, shallow portraits of people with little substance behind them, and it is difficult to maintain interest in them. Throughout the book I kept feeling like she was trying to lead up to a main point, but by the end of the book we still hadn't reached it. The ending was particularly dissapointing, because after reading 555 pages of overblown prose I expected at least some sort of closure. I actually thought perhaps someone had removed the last few pages of the book, as it ended so abruptly and leaving the story (to my mind at least) unfinished. The Little Friend felt contrived, and artifical, and I am dissapointed. I am glad I read it but I will not be rereading it. If nothing else, at least it reminded me of what a gem Tartt's first work truly was.
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