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Why I Put it Down: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

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So…

As you might have noticed, this site has been suspiciously quiet for the past couple of months. The reason: writer’s block. And for those of you who think that’s some lame excuse for being lazy: believe me, not the case. As I found out first hand lately, writer’s block is a real nuisance. Staring at your screen for hours and days on end, hesitantly typing a sentence or two every now and then only to delete them again after having switched their words around over and over… The frustration of having thousands of ideas and things to write about but simply not being able to do so because… because… well, just a ‘because’ with no clear-cut reason basically.

And did I mention the frustration?

Frustration that nothing seems to work in trying to get this strange mental block out of my system: endless amounts of cheap wine and energy drinks, bad eighties and nineties music on the headphones at full blast, long wine fuelled ‘brainstorm sessions’ with Lars at the local Irish Pub (“regression therapy”, as he calls it) and wobblingly cycling home afterward, watching motivational TED talks on YouTube… Hell, I even considered going to a hypnotherapist, were it not for the fact that I didn’t include alternative medicine in my health insurance this year (or ever, for that matter, as I simply think it’s utter bullshit), and would therefore be paying at least 70 euro per session that I would rather spend on other things (like going on long wine fuelled ‘brainstorm’/”regression therapy” sessions with Lars at the local Irish pub (and why the bartender refused to play “Captain Jack” for us last weekend is still very much unclear to me)).

But in between the music, the drinking, the shouting at the screen in frustration, the taking up extra shifts at my daytime job just to escape the shouting at the screen, and the excessive cleaning of my house in a same escape attempt (I even de-greened the balcony last week), I discovered something: I might have a writer’s block, but what I don’t have is a reader’s block. So, I read. A lot. And then I came to another discovery: the number of books in my bookcase that I actually never finished. So I decided to turn March into try-to-finish-all-those-unfinished-books-that-have-been-lying-around-the-house-for-months-now-month. The result of which you can hopefully find here over the upcoming months or so. First one to tackle…

The Little Friend (2002) by Donna Tartt

Let me make one thing very clear from the start: I don’t think this is such a bad novel. And neither do a lot of other people, it won the WH Smith Literary Award and was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003 for a reason. Yet I’m also not the only one who put the book down and never picked it up again. When Dutch writer Kluun requested the readers of his blog in 2005 to send in their pickings for “De Vergeelde Boekenlegger” (or in English: “The Yellowed Bookmark”), a semi-comical poll created to determine the most often unfinished book in the Netherlands, this doll-adorned 555 page long award-winning novel reached the number 1 spot.12  (What that doll on the cover has to do with anything is a question in itself by the way.) So what is it that makes people either love or hate this book? Let’s find out…

Why I picked it up in the first place:

I fell in love with Donna Tartt’s work after receiving The Goldfinch (2013) as a Christmas present the year it came out. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. What more can I say? The Goldfinch is flawless; it’s novel-shaped perfection that moved me to proverbial tears. I won’t give away any spoilers here for those of you who haven’t read it yet, but just listen to this excerpt from the novel’s last chapter, here read by the author herself, in which the protagonist ponders about the painting that shaped and controlled so much of his life:

(the excerpt can be found between 1:24 and 7:00)

Donna Tartt (1963) is an interesting writer, to say the least. Even in this digital day and age she has managed to remain a very private person, so not much about her personal life is therefore known. What she is known for however is the enormous amount of time and effort she puts into her work: each novel she has published so far has taken her about 10 years to write. She debuted with The Secret History in 1992, which I still have to read, and followed this up with The Little Friend in 2002, which I came across in the second-hand bookstore right around the corner of my new home last summer. And as I really liked The Goldfinch, I was curious to find out what else she had written.

What’s it about? (WARNING: SPOILERS!)

The Little Friend is set in a small Mississippi town in the 1970’s and mostly centers around the summertime adventures of Harriet Dufresnes, a clever twelve year old determined to solve a mystery that has haunted her family for years: the murder of her older brother Robin who, only nine at the time, was suddenly found hanging from a tree in the garden on Mother’s Day 1964. (For the record: I know that this happened in 1964 because I googled it and it came up everywhere I looked. For as far as I can remember there’s no specific mention of time anywhere in the book, which is also the case for The Goldfinch for that matter so I guess this is something of a thing Tartt likes to do?) Harriet was only a baby when it happened, and has consequently grown up in the gruesome experience’s bereaved aftermath: an absent father who moved to another town for ‘work reasons’, an inconsolable mother who… I guess finds refuge in self-medication and alcohol? (I can’t remember it very well to be honest.) Harriet’s older sister Allison, four years old at the time of the murder and now sixteen, has turned into a pretty and sweet but awkward teenager who likes to sleep a lot, but why? Little Allison and baby Harriet were both out on the porch when the murder took place, but Allison claims that she doesn’t remember anything about it. As the girls’ parents are too occupied fighting their own demons, their care mostly falls into the hands of their maid Ida Rhew, their grandmother Edith (Edie) Cleve, and Edie’s sisters Libby, Adelaide, and Tat, heirs of a once wealthy and influential plantation family that has now fallen into decline, both financial and literal.

In a strange series of events, Harriet basically comes up with the idea to solve the murder mystery of her brother when she is bored and tries to hold her breath for as long as Houdini could. This makes her pass out, and she subsequently experiences what is probably oxygen deprived hallucination. She sees Captain Scott, Houdini, polar bears, and a penguin orchestra act out a staged quest of some kind. There is also somebody who is “trying to hand her something” while telling her “It’s up to you, my dear….3 Harriet, for some reason, links this to her dead brother and starts investigating what happened that day. And when doing this she comes across Pemberton (or ‘Pem’), one of Robin’s childhood friends and coincidentally also the older brother of Harriet’s friend and sidekick Hely. Pem certainly doesn’t know who killed Robin, but in a twist of conversation, this happens:

_____“Look, this wasn’t like in the movies. Nobody saw some big pervert or creep hanging around and just forgot to mention it.” He sighed. At school, for years afterward, the favorite game at recess was to re-enact Robin’s murder: a game which—passed down, and mutated over the years—was still popular at the elementary school. But in the playground version, the killer was caught and punished. Children gathered in a circle by the swing set, raining death blows upon the invisible villain who lay prostrate in their midst.
_____“For a while there,” he said out aloud, “some kind of cop or preacher came to talk to us every day. Kids at school used to brag about knowing who did it, or even that they did it themselves. Just to get attention.”
_____Harriet was gazing at him intently.
_____“Kids do that. Danny Ratliff—geez. He used to brag all the time about stuff he never did, like shooting people in the kneecaps and throwing rattlesnakes in old ladies’ cars. You wouldn’t believe some of the crazy stuff I’ve heard him say at the pool hall….” Pemberton paused. He had known Danny Radcliff since childhood: weak and swaggering, throwing his arms around, full of empty boasts and threats. But though the picture was clear enough in his own mind, he wasn’t sure how to convey it to Harriet.
_____“He—Danny’s just nuts,” he said.
_____“Where can I find this Danny?”
[…]
_____Pemberton sighed. “Look, Harriet,” he said. “Danny Ratliff is, like, my age. All that with Robin happened back when we were in fourth grade.”
_____“Maybe it was a kid who did it. Maybe that’s how come they never caught him.”
_____“Look, I don’t see why you think you’re such a genius, figuring this out when nobody else could.”4

Of course Pemberton’s efforts to correct his speaking error are all in vain. Add to this that the Dufresness’ maid Ida also remembers chasing Danny off the lawn 10 minutes before finding little Robin’s body hanging from the tree,5 and that’s all it takes for Harriet and Hely to set off on a quest to punish Danny Ratliff. This goes on for about another thirty pages or so, after which the novel starts to center on another set of characters as well: the Ratliff family…

So why did I put it down?

Donna Tart The Little FriendAs Pemberton also tries to explain to Harriet in the chapter referenced above, the Ratliffs are “all kind of crazy”.6 Which basically means that they are trailer trash drug addicts who run a meth lab/ taxidermy business from home. And one of them is some sort of a self-appointed priest who does some kind of thing with snakes. And this is where I put the novel down: the storyline about the Ratliff brothers and their grandmother ‘Gum’ seems to take forever and is an enormous drag. I simply stopped caring.

This brings me to the problem I personally have with this novel: Donna Tartt seems to get ‘sidetracked’. All the time. The story is told in third-person (omniscient?) narration and follows a multitude of characters in a tone that hinges on Modernism, stream of consciousness-like sections included. Tartt’s attention to detail is astonishing and admirable, but also overwhelming, and even, dare I say it, tiresome at parts.

This is also very evident in the way she tries to build up tension. When something important is about to happen, the outcome of it is put off for about a page and a half before the actual revealing occurs. In between which the novel lingers on with an inner monologue or a flashback of some kind. A technique that funny enough would probably work really well when adapting the novel into movie or TV series. On paper, however, it’s just tedious.

A good example of this is the ‘rattle snake at the overpass’-part. Inspired by Pem’s story, Harriet decides that the best way to let Danny Ratliff pay for his presumed crime is by unleashing a poisonous snake upon him through the open top of his car from one of the town’s overpasses. They manage to steal a cobra from Danny’s self-appointed-priest-who-does-something-with-snakes-brother, and throw it down while the car passes below them.

_____They leaned over the railing to watch. Hely felt dizzy. Down the cobra writhed through space, filliping toward the asphalt below. We missed, he thought, looking down at the empty road, and just at that moment the Trans Am—with its T-top open— shot from under their feet and directly beneath the falling snake….
_____Several years before, Pem had been throwing baseballs to Hely down the street from their grandmother’s house: an old house with a modern addition—mostly glass— on the Parkway in Memphis. […]7

[insert over two alineas here about how Pem encourages Hely to throw a baseball through the window of grandma’s house and Hely does just that even though Hely was never good at baseball but for some reason Hely just knew the ball would break the window as if he was given some kind of superpower by God and this had been one of the most satisfying moments of Hely’s life]8

_____[…] And it was with the same disbelief—and terror, and exhilaration, and dumbstruck goggling awe at all the invisible powers of the universe rising in concert and bearing down simultaneously upon this one impossible point—that Hely watched the five-foot cobra strike the T-top unevenly, at a diagonal, so that his top-heavy tail slid abruptly inside the Trans Am and pulled the rest of him in after it.9

I must admit that it actually pains me to write this, as Tartt is also such a good writer at the exact same time. That last excerpt I quoted above is pure beauty in my opinion. I honestly wish I could write like that! Yet the part in between annoyed the crap out of me when reading it, and I think it’s just such a pity that it does.

Another example of this that bothered me to no end is the ‘grandma Edie and her sisters were in a car crash’-part. After Harriet and Hely throw the cobra into Danny’s car, they find out that the car wasn’t driven by him but by his grandmother ‘Gum’, who ends up in the hospital fighting for her life. Harriet starts to panic, and decides that she has to leave town immediately before anyone finds out what she has done. So she convinces her grandmother to bring her to church summer camp. After Harriet has been dropped off there, Edie and her sisters set off on a trip themselves. Unfortunately, Edie is not a very good driver, takes the car for a sharp turn without signalling, and ends up crashing it into another car. We fast forward to church summer camp nine days later, where Harriet is having an awful time. Then suddenly Edie shows up to take her home…

_____“Harriet,” said Edie, “are these all your things?” and Harriet saw, on the gravel by Edie’s feet, her suitcase and her knapsack and her tennis racket.
_____After a slight, disoriented pause—during which her possessions on the ground did not register—Harriet said: “You’ve got new glasses.”
_____“Old glasses. The car is new.” Edie nodded at the new automobile parked beside Dr. Vance’s. “If you’ve got something else back at the cabin you’d better run along and get it.”
_____“Where’s your car?”
_____“Never mind. Hurry along.”10

[insert over two pages(!!!) here of Harriet getting some left over stuff from her cabin while wondering what happened and Harriet being talked to by camp guides Dr. and ‘Nursie’ Vance about God having His own plan and God loving her without her understanding why they tell her this after which she and Edie drive off in the new car]11

_____[…] “I’m sorry, little girl.”
_____For a moment, Harriet didn’t breathe. Everything was frozen: the shadows, her heart, the red hands of the dashboard clock. “What’s the matter?” she said.
_____But Edie didn’t look away from the road. Her face was like stone.
_____The air conditioner was up too high. Harrier hugged her bare arms. Mother’s dead, she thought. Or Allison. Or Dad. And in the same breath, she knew that she could handle any of those things. Aloud, she said: “What happened?”
_____“It’s Libby.12

Again, adapted to film this would be a beautiful scene: the camera set on Harriet, interchanged with several alienating shots from her perspective, voices of the people talking to her slightly blurred and echoing as if not fully reaching her in her confusion and fear of what she might be about to hear, and then, after suspension built up to its fullest, close-up faces, the devastating news: “It’s Libby.” Cue the sad music. When reading it, however, this part reminded me a lot of the sixteen page long sky gliding excerpt from Fifty Shades of Grey: it just seemed to go on for ages and made me flip through the pages thinking ‘for fuck’s sake, get on with it already!’

What happens next? (WARNING: MORE SPOILERS!)

A lot. After all, we still have almost two hundred pages to go from here. But in a (rather large, I’m sorry) nutshell, the following happens:

It turns out that Libby died of a stroke several days after the accident. Her funeral takes place in the midst of a heatwave, which makes Harriet pass out at the funeral home. When she is taken outside to get some air, Danny Ratliff, in search of whoever tried to kill his grandmother, drives by and recognises her from the tumult in which the cobra went missing a few weeks earlier. He puts two and two together but still doesn’t know who the girl is, or what she has to do with the assault. This pondering drives him crazy, and he tries to soothe his nerves by going on frequent drug and drinking sprees.

Problem is that Danny isn’t the only one going crazy: his older brother Farish (he’s the one who runs the meth lab/taxidermy business from home) seems to become more paranoid by the minute. Probably because of the enormous amount of drugs in his system, although the fact that he shot himself in the head somewhere in the past might have something to do with it as well. During one of his frenzies, Farish decides to move the drugs he cooked up off the property. Danny secretly follows him and discovers that he hid the stash into an old water tower that lies vacant behind the train tracks.

Harriet, in the meanwhile, has also continued following Danny, and, in turn, witnesses him when he checks up on Farish’s hidden stash several days later. Danny, however, notices her as well, and starts searching for her around town. When he finally spots her again after a few days of driving around, she happens to be together with Edie. And Danny recognises Edie: she was Robin’s grandmother. Before his death, Robin had invited him to his birthday party at the old plantation house the Dufresnes used to own, which was hosted by Edie. Through Danny’s memories, we not only find out that he and Robin were friends, but also the heartbreaking truth behind Danny’s supposed involvement in the murder-tragedy:

[…] Robin (a generous friendly kid) was dead—dead for many years now—murdered by some creep passing through, or some filthy old tramp who wandered up from the train tracks, nobody knew. At school that Monday morning, the teacher, Mrs. Marter (a mean fat-ass with a beehive, who had made Danny wear a woman’s yellow wig for a whole week at school, punishment for something or other, he couldn’t remember what), stood whispering with the other teachers in the hall, and her eyes were red like she’d been crying. After the bell rang, she sat down at her desk and said, “Class, I have some very sad news.”
_____Most of the town kids had already heard—but not Danny. At first, he’d thought Mrs. Marter was bullshitting them, but when she made them get out crayons and construction paper and start making cards to send to Robin’s family, he realized she wasn’t. On his card, he drew careful pictures of Batman and Spider-man and the Incredible Hulk, standing in front of Robin’s house, all in a line. He wanted to draw them in action postures—rescuing Robin, pulverizing bad guys—but he wasn’t a good enough artist, he’d just had to draw them standing in a line staring straight ahead. As an afterthought, he drew himself in the picture too, off to the side. He’d let Robin down, he felt. Usually the maid wasn’t around on Sundays, but that day, she was. If he hadn’t let her chase him off, earlier in the afternoon, then Robin might still be alive.13

And as much as I didn’t care for the Ratliffs and their enterprises up to this point, this passage changed my entire point of view. In the span of a mere few hundred words, Danny suddenly went from:

to:

I couldn’t help but feel so incredibly sorry for the poor guy! Getting nothing but crap all his life just because of the family he came from. And the sad thing is that things only become tougher for him from this point on…

As Farish’s paranoia starts to become dangerous to those around him, Danny is forced to extreme measures to save himself and the rest of his family. So when Farish orders Danny to drive him to the water tower, Danny takes him there… and then shoots him in the head.

Harriet, in the meanwhile, has climbed into the water tower to see what’s in there, discovered the drugs and, as drugs are bad, has thrown them into the dirty water. And unfortunately for Danny, this means that she’s also there to witness the shooting.

Thus Danny comes up to collect his escape insurance, not only to discover that the stash is ruined, but also to a Harriet trying to shoot him using one of her father’s old guns that she happens to carry with her that day. And after pages and pages of the two of them struggling and fighting in the water (in between Harriet, having practiced to hold her breath for as long as Houdini could over the summer, also pretends she has drowned for a while), Harriet manages to escape from the tower. She accidentally breaks the inside ladder when climbing out however, and locks poor Danny up in there.

Harriet, thinking that Danny has drowned, flees home, becomes sick there because of all the filthy water she has swallowed during the fighting and ‘drowning’, and is rushed to the hospital. But guess who else is in there: Farish, not dead yet though barely alive, and surrounded by the remaining Ratliffs. The self-appointed-priest-who-does-something-with-snakes-brother recognises Harriet somehow and tries to talk to her, but is prevented from getting to the bottom of it all by a mutual acquaintance walking in on them.

The doctors decide that Harriet must have had an epileptic attack, Farish dies, and Danny Ratliff is arrested for murder. As it turns out, the police found him inside the water tower two days later when investigating the murder scene. Harriet overhears her parents discuss the incident. They remember Danny, and refer to him as “Robin’s little friend”. Leaving Harriet pondering whether she might have been wrong all the time.

The novel closes with and Pem and Hely discussing Danny Ratliff’s arrest, Pem feeling sorry for the guy. Hely tries to tell his brother that Harriet was in on it all, but Pem doesn’t believe him.

My final thoughts:

Again: it’s not a bad novel. But I certainly understand the problems some might have with it. If you expect the murder mystery novel it seems to be at first glimpse, you’ll certainly be disappointed: Robin’s real killer is never revealed. And that’s not the only thing that remains unresolved; the novel appears to have a lot of loose ends. Why did Libby find a man’s hat in her bedroom three days prior to the murder? Was Harriet’s mother really starting to develop Alzheimer’s, as was hinted at in the novel? And then there is the incredibly tragic Lasharon Odum character that I haven’t mentioned before, but who gets such a build-up you really start to feel for her and who then abruptly disappears from the story altogether after page 438.

The thing is this may or may not add to the novel’s strength, depending on personal preference. I personally usually don’t mind it when a novel leaves certain things unresolved. Life itself also doesn’t always give you the answers you are looking for. Moreover: some things in life simply remain unanswered altogether. Yet this novel does it in such an abrupt manner that it left me feeling slightly pissed off. Again, though: that’s life as well, and why should fictional life be any different?

If this book has a message, it’s that actions have consequences, and that even the most miniscule thing can catapult a string of events that can never be reversed. In short: one could argue that this is a Southern literature rendition of the butterfly effect. A notion that, in fact, is already present in the novel’s opening sentence when you think about it:

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.14

Would I recommend this novel?

If you want to read a murder mystery novel with a neatly developed plot and outcome, I urge you to look elsewhere. Otherwise: sure, give it a shot. Even though I already revealed most of the novel’s plot here, I can assure you that there’s much more going on. Besides, I don’t think it’s really the plot that matters here; the novel doesn’t seem to be as much about what happens as it is about how it happens. And interesting enough, this is what actually makes me want to read this novel again.

Another thing, one that I haven’t mentioned before but should certainly point out before ending my review, is that The Little Friend is also a pretty accurate period piece of the South in the 70’s and 60’s. And it’s certainly worth reading in that regard. Tartt manages to address a lot of social issues of the time without them being the main focus of the novel, and I really admire that. The decline of old money, power, and traditions (grandma Edie and her sisters certainly seem to echo the Southern Belles from earlier days), the aftermath of the segregation, it’s all in there.

And I’m certainly speculating here, but, next to the novel being extremely lengthy and detailed, and therefore at certain parts a drag, this might also be one of the reasons why so many people here in the Netherlands put it down between its first release in 2002 and Kluun’s listing of 2005. (I read the original novel myself, so I can’t vow for the quality of the Dutch translation, maybe that might have something to do with it as well, maybe not.) Mississippi history is not something the average Dutch person knows much about, and former Southern Belles, crumbling plantation houses, and segregation aftermaths are what we call ‘far from my bed shows’ in my country. Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut The Help (translated into Dutch in 2010 as De keukenmeidenroman) and its 2011 movie adaptation were probably a first proper introduction to 20th century history and politics of the Southern US for many here. And it managed to be one because its underlying theme was all in your face. The Little Friend doesn’t do that. Hell, it doesn’t particularly seem to do so with any of its possible underlying themes or meanings! And although I personally love digging for possible underlying messages, meanings, and themes (I studied English literature for a reason), many readers probably simply desire to be entertained, and this is where The Little Friend might fall a bit short, perhaps.

(Love to see this being turned into a movie or TV miniseries though. Its setting is simply perfect for cinematic adaptation. Think about it: 70’s and 60’s fashion, decors, music, and Southern accents and slang… Maybe cast Aaron Paul as Danny Ratliff, add some proper child actors, a good director, and I would certainly watch the hell out of it. So Hollywood: your move?)


Many thanks to my friend Sandra, who informed me about Kluun’s Vergeelde Boekenlegger on Facebook last month.

Zo gaan die dingen
10.35
Het eiland van het tweede gezicht
36.00
Folmer verdwijnt en andere verhalen
9.95
Het duister dat ons scheidt
8.00

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Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster (a.k.a. The Reading Dutchwoman) studied English Language and Culture at the University of Groningen and specialised in early 20th century literature and poetry. Like most (former) students of literature she is ‘currently working on her novel’.
Gabrielle Pinkster
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  1. To my embarrassment there are actually six other books on that list that I also never finished, so I will probably get back to those in future blogs. 

  2. And I will also get back to Mr. Kluun himself someday. To put it politely: I’m not much of a fan. 

  3. Tartt, Donna. The Little Friend. New York: Knopf, 2002. 80-85. (Words quoted: p. 85)  

  4. Ibidem, 96. 

  5. Ibidem 133. 

  6. Ibidem, 96. 

  7. Ibidem, 330 

  8. Ibidem, 330-331. 

  9. Ibidem, 331. 

  10. Ibidem, 370. 

  11. Ibidem, 370-373. 

  12. Ibidem, 373. 

  13. Ibidem, 462. 

  14. Ibidem, 3.