The Little Friend
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Chip Kidd|
|October 22, 2002|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3570.A657 L58 2002|
Superficially, The Little Friend is a mystery adventure, centered on a young girl, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, living in Mississippi in the early 1970s and her implicit anxieties about the unexplained death of her brother Robin, who was killed by hanging in 1964 at the age of nine. The dynamics of Harriet's extended family are a strong focus of the novel, as are the lifestyles and customs of contrasting Southerners.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2002, Tartt described The Little Friend as "a frightening, scary book about children coming into contact with the world of adults in a frightening way." She told the interviewer that The Little Friend was intentionally different from The Secret History, stating "I wanted to take on a completely different set of technical problems. The Secret History was all from the point of view of Richard, a single camera, but the new book is symphonic, like War And Peace. That's widely thought to be the most difficult form."
In the 1960s, on mother's day, Robin, the eldest and only son of the Dufresnes, a white family living in Mississippi, is found hanging from a tree on the family property. Only nine years old at the time of his death, his murder causes his mother, Charlotte, to sink into a depression and his father, Dixon, to abandon the family on the pretext of work.
Twelve years later his two younger sisters, Allison and Harriet, are now sixteen and twelve years old. Harriet, the youngest child, is considered particularly difficult as she is intensely smart and has also developed a morbid fascination with her brother and also with the past, believing that her matrilineal family, the Cleves, were once incredibly wealthy and successful.
Harriet decides to find the murderer with the reluctant help of her only but devoted friend, a boy called Hely Hull. Harriet's stalwart housekeeper, Ida Rhew, reveals that Robin had a fight with another boy shortly before his murder. Harriet discovers that the boy is Danny Ratliff, son of a highly dysfunctional local drug dealing family. Harriet decides that Danny is the murderer and resolves to extract revenge by stealing a cobra owned by Danny's brother and dropping it from a road bridge into Danny's Trans Am. Harriet and Hely succeed in dropping the snake and cause the Tran Am to crash but discover that it was occupied not by Danny but his grandmother.
Danny and the rest of his family fall further into drug fulled conflict, particularly with their mendacious father. Danny happens upon Harriet investigating his brother's room but is high and so reveals that in fact he was Robin's "Little Friend" and was devastated to discover that Robin was murdered.
Danny resolves to steal some of his own family's drugs and use them to buy his way out of town. He finds the drugs hidden by his brother in a water tower where they are also discovered by Harriet who throws them into the water. Shortly Danny's brother and later Danny appear at the stash where they struggle which results in Danny shooting his brother. Harriet, who has coincidently practiced holding her breath, pretends to drown and escapes when the non-swimming Danny falls into the water.
Danny is arrested in the water tower by the police who charge him with his brother's murder. The identity of Robin's murderer remains a mystery.
Both Ruth Franklin of The New Republic and A. O. Scott of The New York Times reviewed the book positively. Franklin highlighted Tartt's literary "obsess[ion] with crimes that go unpunished". Scott described the book as "tragic, fever-dream realism."
- David Hare review in Guardian Unlimited (October 27, 2002)
- Oxonian Review: "Donna Tartt's Confused Little Friend"