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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Little Friend

Donna Tartt

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To purchase The Little Friend

Title: The Little Friend
Author: Donna Tartt
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 555 pages
Availability: The Little Friend - US
The Little Friend - UK
The Little Friend - Canad
The Little Friend - India
Le Petit Copain - France
Der kleine Freund - Deutschland
Il piccolo amico - Italia
Un juego de niños - España

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Our Assessment:

C : languid and aimless

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 27/10/2002 Gail Caldwell
Daily Telegraph . 26/10/2002 John Lanchester
The Economist . 24/10/2002 .
Entertainment Weekly D 28/10/2002 Troy Patterson
Evening Standard . 30/10/2002 Francis Spufford
The Guardian . 26/10/2002 Natasha Walter
The Independent . 26/10/2002 Boyd Tonkin
London Rev. of Books . 31/10/2002 Thomas Jones
The LA Times C 10/11/2002 Francie Lin
The New Criterion D 11/2002 Max Watman
The New Republic . 30/12/2002 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman A 28/10/2002 Jason Cowley
The New Yorker . 28/10/2002 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Observer . 28/10/2002 Jennifer Egan
The NY Times C 22/10/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/11/2002 A.O.Scott
The Observer . 27/10/2002 David Hare
Salon A- 11/11/2002 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 27/10/2002 .
The Spectator . 26/10/2002 Anita Brookner
Sunday Telegraph A 27/10/2002 Jane Shilling
Time A 21/10/2002 James Poniewozik
TLS . 1/11/2002 Zachary Leader
The Washington Post . 27/10/2002 Dennis Drabelle

  Review Consensus:

  Many reservations but generally impressed. And almost all feel obligated to draw comparisons to Tartt's previous novel, The Secret History.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Little Friend can sometimes seem more like a young-adult adventure novel -- Treasure Island with metaphors -- than the greater work its best moments surely warrant. Tartt is an exquisite, if unrestrained, stylist who can beautifully render the inner life (...) What Tartt doesn't do is offer a cohesive literary blueprint to justify and connect all these finely wrought digressions." - Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe

  • "This range of characters, which comes with a fine selection of minor gargoyles, is one of The Little Friend's strengths. Another is the prose, which is rich, intelligent, and takes its time (.....) There is a lot to admire and enjoy in The Little Friend; too much so, in some respects, since the novel does lose momentum over its 555 pages." - John Lanchester, Daily Telegraph

  • "Tension created in a somnolent setting is key to how this novel works. But the book is not without problems. (…) Her character's moral vacuum helps deepen the sense of a child treading water between the firm ground of childhood and the adult deep, but its ramifications are, in the end, curiously little explored. This may be because, between the book's grand dramatic scenes, long passages meander without direction." - The Economist

  • "The Little Friend, however, wipes out. It is an extended prose catastrophe. (...) (S)he has strained hard, at the expense of plot and character, to create an air of unreality and has achieved ... a strained unreality." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Although her social ventriloquism can be effective, the difficulty that Tartt may have experienced in writing this large novel is echoed by the unevenness of its prose. At its best, her writing fuses seamlessly with its subject: heated when the events are heated, languorous when the moment slows, precise when she ferrets out the next turn of the plot. Yet at times she seems to be reaching for effects that she cannot control. (…) Because of Tartt's mastery of suspense, this book will grip most readers all the way through to its bitter end. But as you reach the last page, you may well feel a sense of relief." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian

  • "Critical puritans (or merely Yankees) will point to its Dixie weakness for verbosity, caricature and melodrama. Yet the verbosity yields passages of mesmerising beauty; the caricature, stretches of delirious comedy; and the melodrama, moments of nerve-shredding excitement. At its close, few readers will wish The Little Friend a page shorter, or a shade paler. In fact, some may hanker for a missing coda" - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Like The Secret History, it's thrilling stuff, and viscerally involving; but at the same time, like The Secret History, emotionally unengaging." - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "All of this sounds promising enough, but somehow the potential is lost in the execution. At the level of technical craft, Tartt is still a master of beauty, and this in conjunction with her sensitivity to loss and strangeness combines in peerless descriptions of the beloved and the grotesque (.....) But overall The Little Friend is a bit like a bad pointillist painting, each little dot drawn with exquisite care and yet not part of a recognizable whole. The book has trouble deciding what it would like to be." - Francie Lin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) tedious, overwrought, ill-conceived non-story. (...) A lot is made of Tartt’s prose, and not for nothing; she is, for the most part, a careful writer. She is, however, too extravagant." - Max Watman, New Criterion

  • "But while The Little Friend contains the framework for many different novels, all of them potentially very good, the book that it actually turns out to be is not entirely satisfactory. (...) Though The Little Friend resembles a thriller even less than The Secret History, it keeps insisting that it is one, with a number of gory escapades that seem to function solely to keep the pages turning." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

  • "The Little Friend is audacious, implausible and enchanting. As with the best 19th-century novels, it is indulgently expansive, as cluttered and overstuffed as Harriet's rambling house. At times, one becomes aware of the strain behind the style: the novel has little of the lightness or real fluency of The Secret History. Tartt never hurries. She is not afraid of scenes intended less to further the action than simply to create mood or deepen character." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman

  • "The fact that The Little Friend turns out to be quite different from the thriller that the reader -- and, I suspect, the author -- may have anticipated is a serious flaw. And yet as a novel of Southern manners it succeeds remarkably well. (…) In the grand Southern tradition, the writing is fluent, even lulling. It's also psychologically acute. (…) The Little Friend doesn't get where it was headed, either, but there's no question that it takes you somewhere worth going." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker

  • "Yet as the question of Robin’s death recedes further into irrelevance, the reader can’t help but feel cheated; The Little Friend has the feel of a shaggy dog story, a series of twists and turns and lateral moves that gets us further from -- not closer to -- the destination we’ve been so eagerly awaiting. Some of this is due to the writing, which ranges from inspired and precise to blandly familiar." - Jennifer Egan, The New York Observer

  • "(U)ngainly (…..) The Little Friend also turns out to be a far more emotionally resonant novel than its predecessor, and a much less satisfying thriller: awkwardly plotted, if keenly observed, and speckled with glittering set pieces that do not add up to a persuasive whole. (…) At its best, it attests to the maturation of the author's voice and her willingness to push her gifts in an ambitious new direction (…..) At its worst, it feels like a Frankenstein of a book, a lumpish collection of mismatched parts that even the author's virtuosic talents cannot transform into a coherent whole." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Her book is a ruthlessly precise reckoning of the world as it is -- drab, ugly, scary, inconclusive -- filtered through the bright colors and impossible demands of childhood perception. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it's all just make-believe." - A.O.Scott, The New York Times Book Review

  • "By the time you have been introduced to a small town peopled by leering white-trash psychopaths who have shot themselves in the eye and by tattooed preachers who reel off religious text while at the same time clumsily handling poisonous snakes, then you may sense that perhaps you are ringside at a circus whose performers were reared more in literature than they were in life. (…) It is when Tartt almost glancingly describes the daily, lethargic weight of the sorrow that affects a family torn apart by the death of its most wanted child that she reveals her extraordinary qualities." - David Hare, The Observer

  • "I can tell you that The Little Friend (...) is overlong, its writing occasionally precious and its resolution murky; and I can also praise the book's vital characters, its supple conjuring of mood and place, and its dry, dark humor. But I can't explain how it is that this is a novel you sink into, or how Tartt casts her weird spell." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Right up till the end (…) she's everything a reader could want in a novelist. Funny, empathic, a demon plotter with a crack-shot sense of time and place, Tartt conjures up a jerkwater town in 1970s Alexandria with an unholy vividness that should have local Jaycees reaching for the tar brush. (…) Impatient readers may grow restless at all of Tartt's switching between the two families, but to tap one's foot or drum one's fingers during these side trips risks missing some gorgeously mean character writing. Besides, Tartt's pacing is deeply, often uproariously self-aware. It races to keep up with the speeding, sleepless Ratliffs, then dawdles to share one of the Dufresneses' lazy, mosquito-buzzing afternoons." - San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A)lthough Donna Tartt’s capacity is never in doubt, her encompassing overview does the plot no favours, allowing in diversions and digressions which she deals with authoritatively but which may reveal a determination to succeed on her own terms, however much these prove frustrating to the reader. (…) It is all horribly persuasive, yet at the same time not quite convincing, and one’s reaction is one of bewilderment as much as of respect. (…) The Little Friend is good, very good; it is undeniably superior. But I doubt if I shall want to read it a second time." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "The brilliance of The Little Friend resides in Tartt's ability to observe with the skewed clarity of a child - or a drug addict. (...) Though her prose is finely wrought, it is also highly readable. Once gripped, one gallops through this novel as through a volume of Dickens or Tolstoy, drawn towards the great final set-piece as though by a magnet." - Jane Shilling, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The Little Friend is a sprawling story of vengeance, with few wasted words, told in a rich, controlled voice that can come only from long effort, which doesn't show ostentatiously on the page. (…) Tartt has written a grownup book that captures the dark, Lord of the Flies side of childhood and classic children's literature." - James Poniewozik, Time

  • "The ending of The Little Friend is similarly anti-climactic, but in a way that frustrates and disturbs. (...) The comic horribleness of the Ratliffs, especially that of Farish, is the best thing in the novel. (...) The effect Robin's death has on his family has been too elaborately detailed for the reader to forget him, or to accept without protest the continuing mystery of its cause." - Zachary Leader, Times Literary Supplement

  • "All these influences and throwbacks underscore what a traditional writer Donna Tartt is. If you demand of new fiction that it show you how to see the world afresh, you are excused from reading her. But if you are hungry for the "simple" pleasures of well-crafted, stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, you'll be glad to make the acquaintance of The Little Friend." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Little Friend begins promisingly enough, with a prologue looking back on events that happened twelve years before the action proper starts. There's a nice opening sentence:

       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.
       And then there is the description of that terrible day, when "Robin: their dear little Robs", just nine years old, got himself killed -- in quite an unpleasant and disturbing way. Even more disturbing: the murderer was never identified or caught.
       Robin's younger sister, Allison -- only four at the time -- perhaps saw something, but never remembers. His other sister, Harriet, was only a baby at the time. The death has a devastating impact on the family, and their dead brother still casts a shadow over the two girls years later:
their relationship with their dead brother was of the most intimate sort, his strong, bright, immutable character shining changelessly against the vagueness and vacillation of their own characters, and the characters of people they knew
       The novel focusses on events twelve years after the boy's death, in particular on Harriet, who becomes obsessed with the idea that a classmate of Robin's, Danny Ratliff, murdered him. Strong-willed and smart, she also decides she wants to bring Danny to justice.
       Harriet is the central character in the book, an intense, bookish girl who made the kids who were devoted to her play Joan of Arc and Crusades and the Last Supper (where she assumed the role of Jesus). She has only one close friend, the annoying, blabbering but loyal Hely, with whom she shares some of her adventures. She is also still an innocent, a child, acting with a childish sort of courage and recklessness. (Tartt also invests her with some odd precocity, capable of unchildlike sentiments such as: "Death, at least, was dignified: an end to dishonor and sorrow.")
       Harriet's family is a weak but prominent presence in the book: the slightly unhinged sister, the lost mother, the absent father (living far away with his mistress), the aunts and grandmother. They figure throughout the book, but they remain shadowy, unhappy with their lots or not wishing their simple lives to be upset. They are decently drawn, in some cases, but largely uninteresting. Not surprisingly, Allison is most devastated when the family cat dies (it was Robin's), while Harriet is most torn-up when the housekeeper, Ida Rhew, leaves.
       Harriet's family is essentially all womenfolk; it contrasts with the other clan that dominates the novel, Danny Ratliff's family, a group of misfits that is almost entirely male. Petty (and not so petty) criminals, they've also had their lives muddled and turned all around, most having spent time in prison. One is semi-reformed and has turned to religion, a youngster is mentally retarded, but crime is still their leading way of life. Danny is just coming into his own here, now an almost full-grown man, taking a more active role in the family businesses.
       Harriet decides to take on Danny. There is an incident with a snake (actually, there are several -- ophidian fans will be thrilled) and Harriet the hunter also becomes the hunted. Events crash out of control, leading to a dramatic confrontation and end (thank god Harriet practiced holding her breath underwater ...). Lessons are learnt.

       The Little Friend has some exciting scenes. Robin's eerie death, Harriet and Hely getting themselves into some scary situations, and the final confrontation between Danny and Harriet hold one rapt. But for most of the time (and, at 555 pages, it's a lot of time) the novel merely plods along. Very little happens. Plot highlights really do include the cat dying and the housekeeper leaving.
       What Tartt has written here is a languid, atmospheric novel of rundown Mississippi life. Unfortunately, the novel is almost all atmosphere -- and even more unfortunately, however evocative, it is not a particularly interesting atmosphere. Southern disintegration and decrepitude, families falling apart for the most various reasons -- fine stuff, surely, but almost all of this belongs in the background, the texture on which to build up a story. Instead, The Little Friend is almost all background and no action.
       There are fine characters here: when Tartt slows to describe them they are very real. But they are not vivid: she does almost nothing with them, more interested in creating "character" than using them to further a story. Done with describing them she also generally does away with them, allowing them to fade out of the narrative for long stretches, out of sight.
       Even Harriet doesn't fully convince, the mix of precosity and childishness not always believable. Tartt barely addresses Harriet's looming adolescence, allowing the character only once to confront:
the horrifying new indignity of being classed -- for the first time ever -- a "Teen Girl": a creature without mind, wholly protuberance and excretion
       The passage is telling: what an odd world Harriet must live in that here (at camp) she is confronted with this reality "for the first time ever". And Tartt, like Harriet, can't handle it: almost as soon as Harriet has been put in this environment she's whisked out of it again. Harriet learns some lessons over the course of the novel, but Tartt does not allow her to grow up: The Little Friend is most definitely not a coming-of-age novel. (It is, in fact, notable for how stunted in age many of the characters are, with others clinging (desperately) to the past.)

       The Little Friend is something of a thriller, but it is not much of a mystery. There is the question of who killed Robin -- but it isn't presented as much of a question. Harriet is sure she knows (though her reasoning in reaching this conclusion is not very well-founded), and her obsession, which drives the narrative (to the extent it is driven at all), does not require any further mystery-solving. As to the book's title, its meaning is dramatically (?) revealed near the conclusion -- but is obvious almost from the get-go. (Who else could it be ?) That said: the consequences of the 'revelation' don't impress all that much either.
       Tartt writes well enough, and there are a few memorable scenes. Unfortunately, the highlight remains the beginning, a promise that the book never lives up to. The thrills -- the crimes, the hunts -- aren't enough to carry the book along, and Tartt opted not to go to the other extreme and make the book entirely a character study of Harriet (which might have worked).
       The Little Friend is unbalanced, unfocussed, and ultimately simply boring.

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The Little Friend: Reviews: Donna Tartt: Other books by Donna Tartt under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Donna Tartt wrote the popular novel, The Secret History.

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© 2002-2013 the complete review

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