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Ten Years in the Making

Donna Tartt's The Little Friend

While it's probably not fair to hold Donna Tartt's new novel, The Little Friend, up to her absurdly successful debut, The Secret History (1992), it's impossible not to.

More than a decade has passed since the 28-year-old, Mississippi-born, Bennington-educated Tartt strode confidently onto the literary scene in 1992 with The Secret History. Her debut novel took Tartt a reputed ten years to write, scored her a record-breaking advance and spent over a year on the bestseller list. While fans and critics waited for the follow-up, Tartt simply said she was working on it, retreating into the same literary silence from which she had emerged.

Now, another ten years later, Tartt's sophomore novel is on bookstore shelves, with all the anticipation and hype following like a marching band behind the parade marshal's car. Worth the wait? The Little Friend renders that question moot. The novel offers little indication of whether Donna Tartt has matured and evolved as a literary novelist, instead confirming what we should have known all along: Donna Tartt is a very good crime fiction writer.

The Secret History, the story of an elite Vermont college and an even more elite secret order of students who end up murdering a classmate, drew comparisons to John Knowles and Dostoevsky. The Little Friend, with its hollow, haunted family, seems to have the ghosts of Southern masters Harper Lee and William Faulkner on its shoulders.

The Cleves, a matriarchal Mississippian clan, have never been the same since the unexplained murder of their oldest child and only son, Robin, in the late 50s. Youngest child Harriet was just a baby then, but now she's twelve -- headstrong, pushy and possessing an appetite for exploration whetted by adventure novels. A strange dream stokes her curiosity about her brother's death, but inquiries to her aunts yield only one feeble suspect -- the criminally convicted older son of a trashy family, Danny Ratliff. Harriet and her friend, Hely, get their heads full of their own idea of justice and set out, with several poisonous snakes, to enact revenge.

The Little Friend may sound like a tidy tale of crime and retribution, but in Tartt's hands it feels like a languid and aimless Southern Gothic tale, a hot sleepless night of a novel. Over nearly 600 pages, the novel teases out scene after scene of crumbling families, women in perpetual mourning and children engulfed in the hazy, violent illusions of their own fantasies. Unlike the cold, blunted prose of The Secret History, which mirrors the airtight world of its characters and the cold landscape of New England, the delightfully tangled sentences in The Little Friend are long and muscular, like the back of a snake.

However, as admirable, sometimes breathtaking, as Tartt's writing is, it feels more showy than convincing. Brilliantly constructed scenes are stretched out like too many Christmas lights, twinkling so brightly that the underlying structure is obscured. As a result, we believe in Tartt and her story for the wrong reason -- she's written it very well in pieces, but not as a whole.

Tartt has admitted somewhat sheepishly that she "can't write quickly" and, judging by the length and intentions of The Little Friend, her effort seems to have been enormous, reflecting time well spent developing mood and setting; the story closes in around us like a darkening sky. But what, exactly, are we supposed to take away from The Little Friend? Is it a tale of a childhood lost to old pain and anger, a story about the all-too-present past, a treatise on the futility of justice? Tartt raises lofty questions, but then lets them drop as she speeds the novel toward its harrowing, inevitable conclusion.

Paragraph for paragraph, Donna Tartt is one of the most gifted writers in America today. It's simply thrilling to watch her at work. But it's the same thrill evoked by reading our best mystery and suspense writers, not frissons of literary pleasure The Little Friend tries to create, with its self-conscious, heavy literary mantle draped about it like the proverbial albatross.

The bottom line: readers expecting a literary masterpiece may be disappointed, but anyone looking for a satisfying, well-crafted mystery will find The Little Friend a worthy read.

The Little Friend
By Donna Tartt
Knopf; ISBN: 0679439382
Hardcover: 555 pages (October 2002)

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