After spending most of my summer binge-reviewing a series author, it was nice to sit down with a substantial stand-alone mystery. This was probably the first hardback novel that I had read in over a year, and its 550+ pages kept me going for about three weeks! I wish I could list all of The Little Friend quotes that I would have highlighted, if it hadn’t been a borrowed book!
I had also never heard of Donna Tartt before, but apparently her earlier novel, The Secret History, earned some great reviews. I'll have to add that to my TBR, but probably after I finish my murder mystery reading phase.
Just to be clear, you don't have to read these Donna Tartt books in order.
The Bad: Too Many Characters in The Little Friend
Some critical reviews of Donna Tartt have called her "rambling," and that's a fair criticism. There were several side-plots and mysterious hints in this story that the author never delivered on, and I found that somewhat unfulfilling.
I also had trouble keeping track of The Little Friend’s characters. In the first chapter of The Little Friend, Tartt introduces the Cleve family, which consists almost entirely of women (a grandmother, a mother and three aunts, and two daughters) and their respective housemaids. If that weren't enough, we also get to meet the Ratliff family, which consists almost entirely of criminal men (four brothers and their ailing mother). And then there are friends of both of these families, who are so often present in the narrative that naturally they might be confused for family members. I was reading the hardback, and frequently wished that I had the Kindle X-Ray feature to review the characters on each page.
It took me about fifty-nine pages to start to get The Little Friend characters’ names straight, and thankfully, that's when Tartt began to focus on the main character of this story, Harriet. Initially, she is a clever and precocious young girl and I took to her immediately. Later in the book, she reveals herself as self-absorbed and single-minded, which leaves a tarnish on her character.
The Good: Vivid Details and Background in The Little Friend
The setting of this book is in Mississippi, either during the Civil Rights Movement or shortly afterward. I found the setting quite realistic and engrossing; the neighborhood descriptions were vivid and the scenery in my imagination always had that early-Polaroid, RCA-television color quality to it.
Although there are too many characters to keep separate, most of them were given enough background and characteristics to make them unique and interesting. In fact, by the end of the book I was left wondering about some of the characters who didn't quite fulfill their arcs.
More Good: Characterization of Children in The Little Friend
Perhaps the most emotionally-connecting themes of this book revealed how children explore the dichotomy of romance and friendships at a young age, how they both fear and rebel against adult authority, and how they cope with loss in different ways. The main character, Harriet, and her little friend, Hely, are a lengthy depiction of unrequited childhood feelings and a stark contrast in empathy and sorrow.
The Recommendation: Read The Little Friend With a Notebook
As far as murder mysteries go, a serious fan should probably stick with Agatha Christie. But The Little Friend has many qualities beyond the limits of that genre, and it's a captivating story of Mississippi life and social dynamics with several intriguing mysteries thrown in. I recommend it to anyone who can handle more than 500 pages at a time - but perhaps take notes on each character as you meet them!
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