Buddy read, Dark, Fiction, Literary, Well known books

[Literary] Great Social Commentary, But Poor Reading Experience The Little Friend by Donna Tartt - Buddy Read with JJ @ This Dark Material!

It seems I can never go a month without a buddy read! And that’s good, because they’re so much fun. This time, me and JJ @ This Dark Material read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Tartt is actually one of my favorite authors, although previously I had just read one book by her – The Goldfinch, which is one of my all-time favorites. So I was pretty excited to pick up The Little Friend and I guess I had quite high expectations, but they were dashed completely to the ground. This book made me a very, very sad bookworm. Onto the review… and don’t forget to check out JJ’s review!

Harriet has grown up in the shadow of a horrible family tragedy – her older brother being mysteriously killed by an unknown perpetrator beside their family home. This event has never allowed family life to go on the way it should have, and Harriet grew up in a pretty dystfunctional atmosphere, despite everything looking respectable on the outside. What Harriet wants the most though, is to take control and punish the murderer of her brother – but there is a problem. Having been but a baby when it all happened, she’s got no leads – and it doesn’t seem like anyone would help her either, because nobody wants to dig up painful events that are a decade old. So Harriet embarks on a dangerous endeavour…

Sometimes book titles have a very obvious meaning (like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and others make the reader work a little harder, or leave it up to their interpretation. What did you make of Tartt’s choice of The Little Friend for the title of this book?

Actually… I am utterly baffled. This book has been a disapppointment in many ways, but one of them is the strange niggling feeling inside that either I’ve grown too simple to understand literary, or literary has grown too elusive. I have absolutely NO clue how this name connects to what happened (or didn’t happen.. Yep, this is one of those books.) I mean, I picked up the serpent symbolism (you can read about that in my last question to JJ here!), and I picked up on quite a lot of other things, but the name..? Completely eludes me. If anyone is willing, please clear it up for me.

Without spoiling too much, were you satisfied with how the book ended? Were there any story lines that you wished had more resolution or a different ending point?

Not at all! I was pretty disappointed at the ending. Hate to spoil it, but we never find out what happened to the brother. It’s not resolved in the least. A few other threads also remain hanging. I feel like the book leaves off without really finishing things up for many reasons. This has been one of the more disappointing endings for me in my reading history. (And we’re talking hundreds of books here.)

Tartt includes examples of racism, classism, and a mixture of the two prejudices throughout the town of Alexandria, MS. Did any one in particular stand out to you? Why do you think that one was so powerful?

That was by far one of the best things about this book – and if it wasn’t built so strongly around the murder of Harriet’s brother, I’d think that’s what the book is generally about (hey, maybe it actually is.) Tartt paints a lot of disturbing pictures – children with guns, children abusing black maids, white trash abusing black people, the way the n word is thrown around like it’s the most natural thing… And the coldness of the higher class towards everyone else and the bad things that are happening. It’s all just too sad. Based on what was going on in the book, at first I thought it was set in the 50’s, cause I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these attitudes could have made it out of that decade. But it turns out, it’s set in the 70’s or at least the late 60’s. Since I have never been in America, this plainly shocked me. I couldn’t believe the amount of racism and classism so late in the 20th century. No wonder we are only having all this diversity talk now. It’s about time.

We talked about this a little as we read, but: do you think Hely was a very good friend to Harriet? Is his behavior excusable because of his age, or is it more a reflection on the substance of his character?

I think it’s a bit of both. To explain this question to those who haven’t read the book, Hely is a friend of the main character, Harriet, who happens to have something of a crush on her too, which drives him to do things he doesn’t actually want to be doing, just to impress Harriet. He also puts her in dangerous positions several times, basically because he’s just a kid, and Harriet has always been something of an adult. I felt like Hely was a well-written character, because at that age (10-11?), girls are a lot more mature than boys. Plus, he grew up sheltered, while Harriet didn’t. So in a way, yes – it’s his age, but it’s also his situation and his character, the virtues he’s grown up with, which are all very different to the ones Harriet has.

Personally I was fascinated by Danny Ratliff and his development throughout the novel. While he’s certainly made some poor choices in life, he was also born into a difficult situation with few opportunities for escape. Do you think he deserved what ultimately happened to him? Or do you think he was a victim himself?

Again, for those who haven’t read – the Ratliffs are very poor while people who basically cook meth in their trailers for a living. Danny is a classmate of Harriet’s dead brother, and mostly, he’s a victim of his circumstances – always put down by his family and his life realities. I was also fascinated by Danny, and I had quite a few moral quandaries over how to react to what happened in the end. I definitely feel like he was the victim in most cases – growing up like he did, with all the violence, poverty and everything else – I still felt like he was the most sane, or rather, life-conscious, out of all his brothers, and I wanted him to have a chance. Harriet was indeed a very cruel test, the Biblical serpent for him – but in the end, he failed. I would have been sad about what happened, had he not made some very poor choices in the end of the book (the ones related to Harriet, Farish totally deserved what was coming to him) but in the end, it wasn’t Harriet who really punished him – it was his poor last choice. Can’t help being sorry at least a little, still – because Danny was a product of his surroundings. Escaping social conditions like that can be nearly impossible.

Another significant arc through the novel is Harriet’s growth. Did she remind you at all of yourself at that age? And, considering all that she learns while investigating her brother’s death, what do you think her journey has to say about adulthood and life in general?

Actually, I can’t say if she reminded me of myself – I don’t remember myself that well back when I was little. I know I was a whole lot more gullible than Harriet though! (Still am. Boo April Fool’s.) But I really did like her as a character, she was very human, very realistic – not at all smiley and perfect like kids in stories are often, but just a very dark, sad and defined little human. Tartt gives us foreshadowing of what would happen to Harriet in her grown up life, by dropping hints like “and this is the moment Harriet will always recall as the start of her miserable life” (not quoting here, just summarizing), etc. So I feel like the end of the story was sort of a coming of age for Harriet, an initiation into the cruel, cold and lonely world of the adults – one that will remain like that for her forever, because essentially, her life has been one great PTSD, ever since her brother died.

We’ve now both read two novels by Donna Tartt, although the overlap begins and ends with The Little Friend! I’m going to keep this general since I haven’t yet read it myself, but what similarities did you see between this and her third novel, The Goldfinch? Do you think Tartt focuses on similar themes in both books?

I actually noticed a lot of similar trends in these books! The Goldfinch also touches upon the criminal world (and even children, meddling in it), drugs, loneliness, loss of family, being lost and uncared for in general, being on your own even though you’re just a child. However, this is where the similarly ends, I feel. The Goldfinch was an incredible, magical book – if I had to choose ONE book that I could keep, it would be this one. I can say nothing of the sort about The Little Friend. It feels jumbled up, unfinished, needlessly dragged out and just plain old boring in places. Can’t be compared with the experience of reading The Goldfinch – I would literally forget to eat while I was reading that book.

And something fun for the last question: Harriet has four great-aunts, all of them vibrant and distinct. Who was your favorite?

That’s a really tough question! I think I won’t surprise you though – it’s probably Libby. While Edie is an incredibly complex and beautiful character, she’s also… kind of a bitch. She’s also racist and classist. While Libby is caring, loving and self-sacrificing – a wonderful human being. That’s why I can’t help but pick her!

I Have To Talk About The Other Book Though…

I know I didn’t enjoy this one, and that’s sad, but… I have to still tell you that Donna Tartt is an amazing author! I still have one book of hers that I haven’t read, and I keep up the hopes that The Goldfinch was not just a lucky fluke – but rather, a stroke of genius. Which is why I truly recommend you to read The Goldfinch! It’s a sweeping story of loss, coincidence and the criminal world that shares quite a lot of themes with The Little Friend, as I’ve already mentioned, as well as being just as long (or even longer) – but it doesn’t drag or bore you, it’s more like you can’t pry yourself away from the pages! At least, that’s what certainly happened to me. I can only urge you to read it!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Be sure to head on to JJ’s post to read her take on The Little Friend!

Have you read The Little Friend or anything else by Donna Tartt? And how did you like it, if you have? Maybe you can tell me your take on some of those hidden meanings in this book?

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