Book Review: The Little Friend

The Little FriendThis is the third book I’ve read by Donna Tartt. Compared to The Goldfinch and The Secret History, it fell a bit short. While I wasn’t nearly as captivated by the characters or setting or plot, Tartt is still a masterful storyteller. She has a unique way of placing readers inside the scene instead of keeping them on the periphery. She knows how to show instead of tell.

The Little Friend begins with the jarring knowledge that nine-year-old Robin was found hung from a tupelo tree in a small, fictional town in 1960s Mississippi. Autopsy reveals that he was strangled first, then hung, a curious tragedy that never got solved. The story picks up a decade later with a family that never recovered.

Our main character is 12-year-old Harriet (think Harriet the Spy), who was only a baby when her older brother died. Her sister, Allison, was barely four, but the remnant of her brother’s brutal death left her lifeless and emotionally stunted. The same goes for their mother. (Their father ran off to Nashville for a new life but does well to send money home.)

There is also the grandmother and her three sisters, a quad of old spinster women who busy themselves with the keeping of tradition.

Harriet is presented as the most mature person of the bunch, save their maid, Ida Rhew, who seems to know and see all. But as Harriet sets off to find and punish the person who murdered her brother, she creates a storm of trouble for herself, her family, and the Ratliffs, the family whom she suspects is behind the crime.

The book is 555 pages and heavy on character development. (The most exciting parts of the book occur in the last 50.) It’s a Southern Gothic novel fraught with racial inequalities, white trash families, and the very worst of a heritage we wish never existed. It moves slowly in the way that’s irritating, even when the sentences are beautifully written. Yes, it’s my least favorite of the three (plot-wise and otherwise), but I still love how Tartt weaves a narrative. I’d pass on The Little Friend and forever encourage you to read The Secret History. It’s outstanding.

Book Review: The Secret History

I’ve read enough books in my life to know not to be swayed by the remarks on the cover. Every book is “enthralling” and “captivating” and “stunning.” I get it.

But friends, The Secret History is all of those things. It is more. Like The Goldfinch, I devoured it in a matter of days, which is saying something since it’s nearly 600 pages. I echo the New York Times review: It is “forced, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.”

The Secret HistoryIn first person, we hear from Richard Papen, our storyteller, main character, and participant in a murder. He’s from an uninteresting blue-collar town in California, where he’s bored and unnoticeable. He pulls together enough funding to attend a small private college in Vermont called Hampden and it’s there that he comes to life among an intimate group of Greek scholars led by a mesmerizing and enchanting professor. He is only the sixth student allowed to be in Julian Morrow’s class, an intoxicating invitation that finally gives him some level of purpose. They create for themselves a secret society. Among the group is Francis, high-strung and wealthy, Henry, the dark, obsessive leader, the attractive and inseparable twins Charles and Camilla, and Edmund, nicknamed Bunny, the obnoxious and unfortunate soul who is killed by his classmates.

This isn’t a spoiler. We know they kill Bunny by the end of the first page. The book is Richard’s retelling of the history – how it happened, why they did it, and, more importantly, what happened after.

It helps to have even the tiniest knowledge of Greek literature so you recognize simple references to the works of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, etc. It’s not necessary, just helpful. Donna Tartt doesn’t talk above our heads, so even if you remember nothing from Philosophy or Ancient Literature class, you’ll be fine.

However, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how screwball Greek characters are, specifically Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.

The writing is masterful. No one can touch it. The hint of one secret is the doorway to the room where everything is laid bare. One secret unravels a hundred secrets and it’s this level of enticement that kept my eyes in the book at every waking moment. You cannot read this book too fast, but nor would you want to. Even now I wish I’d slowed down if only to enjoy it a little longer.

Buy The Secret History here. 



Book Review: The Goldfinch

At nearly 800 pages, The Goldfinch was a commitment, but it was one I was ready to make because I’d waited a year for this book to come out in paperback. During that time, it sat comfortably on the New York TImes Bestseller List, won a Pulitzer Prize, and acquired movie rights – and rightfully so.

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch begins with Theodore Decker introducing himself to us – his anonymous reader – as an adult in Amsterdam. He’s ill with some sort of fever and tells us that his life is severed into two parts: before his mother’s death, and after. Then we jump back in time at his re-telling to learn what happened.

Theo was thirteen, a single child to his single mother in New York City, and had just been caught smoking a cigarette at school with a bad influence of a friend. On the way to a parent-principal conference, Theo and his mother stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to kill a little time. His mother shows him her favorite painting – The Goldfinch, a 1694 oil on panel a little bigger than a piece of paper. Just as Theo’s eyes leave the painting and gaze upon a spunky redhead at the museum with what looks like her grandfather, an explosion rocks the wing, destroying several works of art, killing a handful of people, including Theo’s mother.

In the rubble, disoriented and in shock, Theo finds the older man he saw with the redhead. The dying man says a myriad if disjointed things, then gives Theo an old ring and tells him where to take it. In the confusion of it all, Theo also takes The Goldfinch and leaves the museum through a back door.

All of this happens within the first fifty pages.

The journey Theo takes is a long, winding one filled with guilt, drugs, travel, and unquenched desire – all with The Goldfinch in tow. Welty (the old man) and Pippa (the redhead) inadvertently set him on a path to Hobie (a restoration expert), while the loss of his primary parent sends him first to a wealthy family in the city and then to Las Vegas to live indefinitely with his addiction intrenched father and his sketchy girlfriend. There he meets Boris, a Russian transient who becomes one of the greatest influences of his life – and the reason Theo winds up in Amsterdam.

Always at Theo’s heels is the knowledge that he has stolen a priceless piece of art and the fear that he will one day be caught.

Even though this story rocks my socks off, it isn’t without a few slow parts and heavy-handed description that could’ve been whittled. The end is particularly laden with lecture. Tartt’s few bits of lengthy drivel are probably the parts that warranted mixed reviews from some prominent literary critics, but they didn’t deter my own enjoyment. It was an engaging story, so sad at times, but thrilling at others.

At its core, The Goldfinch is a testimony to how art speaks directly to its viewer – how one interpretation is just as valid and moving and specific as the next. Art allows us to “speak to each other across time,” as Theo says, connecting us in cosmic, desperate ways.

“For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time — so too has love.”

For that, if no other reason, it’s beautiful. It has a firm place in my top ten favorites of all time.

Buy The Goldfinch here.