The Little Friend

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Author: Donna Tartt

Finished on: 13 February 2016

Where did I get this book: I don’t remember. It has been on my shelves for years waiting to be read. Again, if you lent it to me and I didn’t return it – then do let me know!

We had a deal, Donna Tartt. You started your book with a mysterious death. And I read on for 555 pages. Of very small type.

The deal is that by the end of those 555 pages, you will have told me who the killer is. And how. And why.

I don’t care if this makes me an unsophisticated reader. At all. If Tartt deliberately ended The Little Friend  without wrapping up the central mystery of the story in order to be interesting or challenging, or to provide a metaphor for the lack of satisfying conclusions in real life, then that is just self-indulgent and annoying.

Its like going to see your favourite band, and they don’t play any of the songs you know and love, but decide to go all avant garde and experimental for the evening. It is breaking our unspoken contract. A lot of the book is wonderfully written, with the same amazing gift for characterisation that she blew me away with in The Goldfinch. But a writer has got to bear in mind what the expectations of her readers will be, and not leave them hanging (pun not intended) and disappointed. Well, obviously, she hasn’t got to – because she doesn’t – but how I wish she had.

The Little Friend also shares the same unedited quality as The Goldfinch. Repetition. New elements that feel integral to the story are still being introduced on page 400. Characters are described repeatedly in what feel like multiple introductions into the story, sometimes in slightly contradictory ways. I love a lot of Tartt’s writing, but this just feels sloppy, and I don’t understand why she isn’t edited more effectively.

I did a lot of reading around the ending of the book. And there are some interesting theories around about who the killer is. But that’s not the point really. Any one of the theories could be true – I want to to know Tartt’s conclusion. I discussed the open ending with my daughter (mainly because she asked me why I was threatening to throw the book on the fire as I finished the last page). She told me about a book called Thinking Stories that she has read at school. A book of short stories where the endings are open in order to ‘wake up your mind’ and encourage you to think for yourself about how the story will end. The verdict on these stories is, in her usual incisive way, that “they are rubbish.” And I agree. My mind is awake. All the way through reading The Little Friend it was speculating; imagining what the conclusion might be. Giving the book a satisfying ending would not have diminished that at all.

In my supplementary internet research, I watched an interview with Tartt where she talks about what she wants her readers to get from her books. (I did end up loving her a bit based on reading and watching interviews with her – annoyingly, after she had annoyed me so much. She is quite something). And she said the primary thing she wants is for her readers to be having fun. Hmm…

More honest, I think, was an interview where she talks about what she loves about writing. That for her it is about technical challenges; the labours of a writer getting to grips with different styles. Understandable. But when you’re fully indulging in this, Tartt, we’re not having fun.

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5 comments

  1. This is really interesting – even if it doesn’t encourage me to read the book! I’ve only read one of hers – The Secret History – and that took me two attempts as I was put off at the start by how obnoxious and elitist most of the characters are. Not sure I’ll bother reading any more of her books – Secret History was good, but not amazing.
    And you’re absolutely right, if you’re going to write a murder mystery – even if it is a literary murder mystery – you have made a contract with your readers to tell them who the killer is. End of. No question. Not to do so is perverse to say the least.
    Thanks for the well written and interesting review – sorry I won’t be reading!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, that’s the thing I don’t get. I totally understand her rattling thousands of words off on a manuscript – but then you hand it over to your agent / editor etc and they say ‘slash this’ ‘cut that’. Even literary fiction needs some kind of structure – doesn’t it? Maybe I’m just too used to reading genre fiction!

        Like

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