The Little Friend
by Donna Tartt
Published by Knopf
480 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Too Little, Quite Late
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
First novels are tough. It's tough to write one (I've done it, so I know), and it's tough to get one published (I've done that, too, so I know that, as well). For the rest of us, it's quite often hard to read them, as they're not always of the best quality. Their stories are sometimes hackneyed. Sometimes coming-of-age-like. Sometimes they're just downright bad.
And then, other times, they're sublime. A few years ago, there was a novel called A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. It was, as they say, un-put-down-able. In that respect, it was very much like another first novel, The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
When I first got my hands on The Secret History, I devoured it. I mean, it was all I did for days and days. I didn't eat. Didn't sleep. Didn't call anyone or answer the phone. I think I bathed, but I'm not sure; after all, it was ten years ago. It was an amazing piece of work. Scholarly in a way that made you want to know as much as Tartt obviously did. Thrilling in a way that made you want to go back to school and be a little more decadent than you were -- and a little smarter. Well-written in a way that made you think about whether you really could be a novelist. It was the kind of novel you talked about, argued about and wanted to hold on to, like a close friend. It was the kind of novel that became part of you. The Secret History actually lived up to all the hype it received. That alone was -- and is -- a rare thing.
And then, to follow it up, Donna Tartt wrote... nothing. No one heard from her for years. And then more years after that. Sure, there were a few dribs, maybe a drab or two. But a novel we could all sink our collective teeth into? A dark tale we could love with passion and talk about incessantly with everyone who would listen? No.
Know why? Because as tough as first novels are, second novels are worse. If one's first is lucky enough to be well-received, one then feels the pressure to Do It Again. Go ahead, be a sophomore, the world says. And more often than not, that second effort is just... well, sophomoric. Dull. Not lifeless, but certainly not crackling with the excitement of the first, headline-grabbing effort.
Though lightning may strike me down and the good people of the reading world may disagree with me with all their heart and soul, I am here to tell you that, despite everything you may read to the contrary, despite all the cover stories and rave reviews that will doubtless appear, despite people bowing down in the streets, Donna Tartt's new novel, The Little Friend -- a decade-in-the-writing, salivated over by rabid fans from Podunk to the Netherlands (where Tartt is something of a literary god), closely guarded by its publisher until the last possible moment -- just isn't that good.
There. I said it.
And I didn't hear any thunder. No lightning struck my house. The tectonic plates didn't shift. Hmm. Curious.
I wanted to love The Little Friend. I really did. I read about it early, tried to gather as much information as I could on the Internet -- and there was very little to be had. I tried in vain to score an early copy and finally had to borrow a friend's, so I could read it and review it in a timely manner.
Once I got my mitts on it, I carved out a block of time and dove in. Head first. I took it on vacation -- with no back-up book. And the truth is, it starts off well.
A nine-year-old boy named Robin is found hanging from a tree in his backyard in rural Mississippi, on Mother's Day. No one knows how it happened. There are no clues, no indications of foul play. Just a dead boy, hanging.
Flash forward a dozen years and we meet his sister, Harriet. She was an infant when Robin died and now she's obsessed with finding his killer.
Cool premise, right? I thought so. But then, in among all the myriad details about Harriet's life and friends and family, as well as some of the other characters in her small Mississippi town ... nothing. Harriet does a lot of poking around with her best pal Hely, who has a crush on her. She spends some time with her aunts, who seem to be competing for Most Eccentric Relative. And she snoops around in the nefarious lives of a bunch of brothers from the wrong side of the tracks, who are into drug dealing, snakes and God knows what else. She even gets into serious trouble. But so what?
As far as characters go, Harriet is the most fascinating 12-year-old this side of To Kill a Mockingbird. She's funny, angry, desperate, brave -- but most of all, and entirely convincingly, she's a 12-year-old girl. She's drawn perfectly, and if you asked me to narrow down this very long book to one redeeming quality, it would be the quality with which Tartt has rendered her heroine. Clearly, there is love here.
She's the kind of character Tartt clearly loves to build: dimensional, highly detailed, with a clear voice all her own.
And that's the frustrating thing. Tartt's ability to draw Harriet and all the other characters is there in full. The writing itself is amazing -- when it doesn't go on forever about the smallest thing in a sort of Southern novel way. Goodness gracious, there were times I was torn between being fascinated and just plain falling asleep. The Little Friend isn't boring; but it takes for-freakin'-ever to get where it's going.
When the secret identity of the little friend is revealed, what should be a big shock for the reader isn't shocking at all. Instead, the effect -- though certainly shocking for Harriet -- can be written off by the reader to the totally understandable (though sad) foibles of youth. What seems to have been intended as a Presumed Innocent-like moment (you know, when the identity of the killer is revealed in the scene at the end) comes off as a weak imitation. Interesting? Yes. Compelling? No.
That's my beef with the whole book. I wish Donna Tartt had built herself a plot that mattered. The Little Friend seems to have been constructed simply to give Harriet a place to exist, a raison d'être. It's as if Tartt played a game of "What if?" with herself. What if I had this 12-year-old girl whose brother died when she was a baby, and she's now obsessed with finding his killer? And what if she has these eccentric aunts? And what if there's a group of bad boys, bad seeds, one of whom she suspects of killing her brother? And what if the whole thing takes place in rural Mississippi, during the time I was growing up? And what if it were all enough to be my second novel?
There's no question that Donna Tartt is one hell of a great writer. She's written a complex, multilayered book that just happens not to work. In the end, I just didn't care about what happened. I cared about Harriet as a girl, but I couldn't have cared less if she found her brother's killer or not. I didn't get on the ride, as Tartt wanted me to do. In fact, I started buying into Harriet's aunts' advice, to forget her brother's death and get on with her life. (But of course if characters like Harriet did that, there'd be no books.)
The Little Friend is long, overtold and overbaked, with scads of detail in the grand tradition of Southern novels. (I'm from the south -- New Orleans -- so I know.) It wants so much to resonate, to mean something, but it doesn't. At every turn, Tartt's characters seem to be competing for the Best Written prize, none moreso than Harriet. She's clearly the kind of girl who'd turn her nose up at the prize if she won it, claiming to be above such things, but she's certainly competing.
As I read, one question haunted me page after page, as I waited for something to grip me: What if this novel were actually as good as the character who burns at its center? I'll tell you "what if": That would be a Little Friend worth having. | November 2002
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.