August 2020 was not going well for me in terms of reading – I’d lost steam about 10 days into the month and never managed to make it back. For a last ditch effort to regain some enthusiasm I decided to read whatever my heart desired and abandon my tbr. I wanted something dark like Ninth House, possibly a thriller or mystery element as I’d rewatched Murder on the Orient Express and Knives Out recently and loved them, and most of all I wanted to be engrossed in a book with a really rich atmosphere.
I didn’t know what to expect– this was my first book by Donna Tartt and reviews seemed to suggest that her first novel, the famous The Secret History was her best. But this was the one with the dark elements I was looking for and the synopsis really caught my attention.
The setting is Alexandria, Mississippi, where one Mother’s Day a little boy named Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found hanging from a tree in his parents’ yard. Twelve years later Robin’s murder is still unsolved and his family remains devastated. So it is that Robin’s sister Harriet – unnervingly bright, insufferably determined, and unduly influenced by the fiction of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson–sets out to unmask his killer. Aided only by her worshipful friend Hely, Harriet crosses her town’s rigid lines of race and caste and burrows deep into her family’s history of loss.
The first thing that I noticed about The Little Friend was the gorgeous atmosphere that just sucked you right into the story. I was looking for a read that gripped me and from the get go this one really did. In true literary fiction fashion we spent a generous portion of time thoroughly setting up Harriet’s world. Harriet is surrounded by a sister, mother, a smattering of great aunts, a grandmother and her best friend. It is very quickly apparent that Harriet has plenty freedom this summer as her mother has never recovered from the loss of her son and largely ignores her daughters. Harriet’s sister is very timid and quiet, often spending most of her time asleep.
Harriet decides she wants to know more about her brother’s death and bring his killer to justice. Working alongside her best friend, Harriet explores her town and discovers its secrets along the way. I loved Harriet as a character, she was opinionated and full of attitude. She is often self absorbed in a way a lot of nine year olds are, and her different relationships with all of the supporting cast felt real to me. I wouldn’t say there was much in the way of development, but that has a lot to do with how the plot let me down.
This book acts like its building to a climax the whole way through. Around the 2/3 mark the plot really picks up the pace and the stakes. At that point in the novel I was hooked and read well into the night to finish the book in one sitting. That was a mistake. The plot goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t provide a satisfying ending. This lost most of the points on the plot rating. If a novel sets out a clear question in the blurb and then doesn’t bother to answer it in some fashion after 555 pages then I’m going to be disappointed.
I loved the writing and atmosphere built in this book, but ultimately the lack of plot and overuse of racial slurs just threw the book away. I have heard from other reviewers that this is Tartt’s weakest book, so I remain hopeful that there is a Donna Tartt book for me.