8 Thoughts From Reading The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

As a committed Donna Tartt fan, I was very much looking forward to this. The Little Friend was Tartt’s first novel and has mixed reviews. Having read and loved The Goldfinch, I had high expectations, but I was definitely not blown away. These are 10 thoughts I had whilst, during, and after reading, The Little Friend.

*Caution* ~ may contain spoilers.

The Little Friend

Donna Tartt

Novel, fiction, bildungsroman

Bloomsbury Edition, 2017 / 2002

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What is going on?

I found the book incredibly hard to follow, despite its simple premise. The novel is told mainly through the perspective of Harriet, a young girl growing up in Alexandria, Mississippi. Harriet spends the book trying to find out what happened to her brother, Robin, who was found hanging from a tree in the family’s front yard, many years ago. The novel jumps about from person to person, which I don’t usually mind, however in this case I found it hard to see how the different perspectives linked together, to aid the overall story.

There are so many characters and I’m struggling to keep up with them

Although the narration is mainly told through Harriet, it is alternated with the perspective of Danny Ratcliff, who Harriet thinks has murdered her brother. His life, and daily activities are paralleled with Harriet’s attempt to track him down, but this is also executed with no real structure. Ratcliff also introduces many other characters into the story – including Farish, his accomplice, Eugene (another accomplice), Curtis and Gum – who I never quite worked out.

And of course, there’s all the characters in Harriet’s family – her sister, Allison, Ida, the family’s maid, her mother and all her aunts and grandparents. And of course, Helly, her best friend. It really is a mind field and I struggled to keep track of them all and work out who was who.

Image: Jp Valery for Uplash

I’m really near the end and I still haven’t found out what happened to Robin

As I kept getting nearer towards the end, I was waiting for something to happen and it never came. Although the events towards the end of the story are quite exciting, we never find out who murdered Robin which I found so frustrating as this is what the novel is set up to do. It was just so unsatisfying that the whole premise of the book just wasn’t fulfilled.

I love Tartt’s writing but this novel feels jumbled and like it doesn’t have a structure

You cannot fault the writing stylistically, as Tartt undeniably has the ability to write and create a sense of atmosphere, which is executed well in this novel. However, there was just no structure to the story and I found it hard to want to keep reading. The only thing that kept me going was that I thought I was going to find out what happened to Robin. It was a pleasurable reading experience because the writing was good, but there was just so little substance to it.

I’m sad as I thought I would love this as much as her other books

I’d be lying If I said I didn’t finish this book feeling endlessly disappointed. Maybe I’m judging it too harshly as it was her first book and I have the benefit of having fallen in love with her more recent books but I did really want to like this. Part of me is also sad because I’ve now read all of her books and I know she takes a while to write.

Everything changes when Ida leaves

About 3/4 of the way through the book Ida, the household maid leaves as Harriet’s mother decides she no longer needs her services. Tartt portrays this noticeable break in the novel through incredible symbolism. The character of Ida is symbolized as being the carrier of normality in the household and Harriet’s life more widely, “Time was broken. Harriet’s way of measuring it was gone. Ida was the planet whose round marked the hours…” The story noticeably shifts to something more sinister when Ida leaves, and this crafting of the novel is the most sophisticated part.

I love Donna Tartt’s writing, but this novel was really redundant for me

The more I read, the more I was getting frustrated. There didn’t seem to be any climax to the story, yes there are a few exciting events, but the overall crux of the novel is never executed, which is such a shame because the writing as usual is spot on. Tartt has this unique ability to craft in depth character studies that drive the story forward, but unfortunately, in this case there was a lack of story in the first place and a plot that was unfulfilled.

The feeling of the book and the setting is infallible

Tartt’s characteristic attention to detail and use of sensory language portrays the feeling of growing up in Mississippi in in the 1970s from the perspective of a young girl. It is a fascinating character study – but I can’t help but feel it is nothing more than that. Her language creates an atmospheric feel to the book, my only wish was that it had a definitive story arc with a penultimate ending.

I’m currently trying out a few different formats for book reviews, let me know what you think of this one!

Book Review: The Truants

The Truants is a coming of age story with a twist, telling the experience of Jess Walker’s first year as a student at the fictionalized University of East Anglia. Jess studies English Literature and enrolls herself on an Agatha Christie course, immediately finding herself enthralled by the subject, as well as the expert in the field, Professor Lorna Clay. Jess becomes friends with a group of uninitiated, carefree students, including falling for Alec, an ex student and current journalist.

Genres: Mystery, Suspense, Coming of Age, Literary Fiction

My rating: ★★★★

This book echoes the reverberated student scene of carefree days drinking in pub gardens and ignoring academic responsibilities. As the closeness of Jess’ relationship with Lorna unfolds, the mystery involving Alec starts to appear before the readers’ eyes.

Jess cannot help but be pulled in by the perplexing Alec. He is good looking, intelligent, but little does she know about his deeply troubled past. As a character, he is laced with toxicity, regret and past betrayal and takes it out on those who fall for him – a classic maverick disguised as a heart throb. Jess gets caught up in several disturbing love triangles, which serve to explore the realities of betrayal on a relationship and friendship basis. The lure of new love becomes her achilles’ heel as she is placed in the middle of a dark mystery of her own.

Something rather dark lurks beneath the seemingly picturesque portrayal of student life, which is discovered as the book progresses. Despite drawing so heavily on the works of Agatha Christie and her novels, this book is essentially its own mystery and a play on the psychology of relationships, seduction and betrayal. It combines a lot of different genres which I think is one of its selling points, it has elements of literary fiction, mystery and thriller, whilst being told within the coming of age paradigm. The feeling of suspense is naturally created early on in the book, which produces an unavoidable hook for the reader. The whole time I was reading I had a feeling of unease; but couldn’t help but read on. I was fascinated by the characters and wanted to see how everything would unfold.

I think the highlight of this book is in the complexity of the characters. The story only centers around a handful of individuals, but each are fundamentally flawed. This allows for the difficulties of coming of age to be realistically conveyed, with the exploration of problematic friendships and relationships. Jess, the protagonist, was particularly complex, and I was drawn to her insight. It is essentially a major portrayal of character development and exploring the dark incidents that lay within her experience at university.

That said, I did think the play on the mystery was to a certain extent cliche. Not being familiar with Agatha Christie’s writing, I can’t comment on the full exploration of this – and there may be things I missed. Critique’s and readers alike have drawn similarities between this and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, being an avid fan of that novel, I fail to see the comparison aside from the theme of ‘dark academia.’ I found the language in this underdeveloped and simplistic at times, whereas Tartt’s writing is wonderfully crafted, with layers of intricacy. In some ways, I think this book tries too hard. I got the sense it was trying to aestheticize student suffering within the framework of academic life. There are many troubling scenes and dark elements to the book, some are explored well, but others rather flippantly.

However, I very much enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to anyone. It combines so many genres, is full of complex characters and a sense of unrelenting intrigue. It grabbed me from the start and left me hooked, for that alone I would say it is very commendable.

A big thank you to Net Galley and Bloomsbury Publishing for giving me an e-arc copy to review. Please note however, this does not influence my review in any way.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

What I read in May (2020)

Another month in isolation brings another months worth of reading to an end! I have read a variety of things and pretty much loved everything. I’m starting to think maybe I need to be more critical…!? I found myself feeling drawn to non-fiction which isn’t the norm for me, but nonetheless, the month was still dominated by fiction.

The Library of the Lost and Found, Phaedra Patrick ★★★★

It feels like a life time ago that I read this but it was only at the start of the month! A lovely, heart warming story about a librarian who attempts to discover the truth about her family’s past. Uplifting and reviving in a time of need! And if you like books about books, stories and words, you’ll love this.

Re read: Normal People, Sally Rooney ★★★☆☆

The beginning (and most of May it seems) has been dominated by the hype around Normal People. I decided to re-read this in the hope of liking it more, again, I was left with the same feeling I got the first time round. Average story documenting a strange kind of relationship – something about it doesn’t sit with me well. A nice little coming of age novel, but one that doesn’t deserve the hype, nor the literary credibility.

The Bullet Journal Method, Ryder Carroll ★★★★

I enjoyed this very much. To coincide with my increasing habit of journalling during isolation, I decided to read the definitive bullet journal guide. I found it very informative, motivating and easy to read and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to learn more about the benefits of journalling to manage anxiety. It also contains useful diagrams and examples of how to lay out your journal.

The Bridge of Little Jeremy, Indrajit Garai ★★★★

I was kindly sent a copy of this and really feel in love with the story. It is one of the most beautifully written stories I have read and I feel in love with the language. It’s told through the perspective of a twelve year old boy living in Paris, trying to save his Mother from going into financial ruin. It really tugs at your heart strings, but in all the best places. Above all, it is a story about the love and appreciation for art and seeing the beauty in the everyday.

Frozen Butterflies, Simona Grossi ★★★★

This was weird story, it had such a lingering weirdness that I couldn’t bring myself to write a review about it on my blog. The characters were directionless, possessive and obsessive and I found the relationships that Susan (the protagonist) perused worrying and strange. However, I found myself addicted to the book and couldn’t stop reading it. The discovery of a stranger’s journal starts the whole thing off and gives the reader the hook they need to read the novel. Intriguing is one word to describe it for sure.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy ★★★★★ 

Arguably the best book I have read this year, I loved everything about it – from the story, the protagonist, Sofia, and the general ‘feeling’ the book left me with. It’s descriptive prose made me notice even the small things in my day to day life, and I felt I could immediately read it again. Set in Spain, the story follows the journey of post-graduate, restless Sofia, as she takes her mother to Spain in the hope of curing her various ailments. It is essentially a coming of age novel, but told with such sincerity and depth that it kind of blew me away.

In the Dark, Soft Earth, Frank Watson (ARC, due to be published July 2020) ★★★★

I was kindly sent this from the Plum White Press. This collection of poems explores many elements, from love, relationships, desire, to an appreciation of nature and our place in the world, but essentially draws upon the idea that everything we experience has an ancient history. The language is simple, but charged with pivotal imagery and sentiment. The images created are beautiful, and a hypnotic ode to the human experience.

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News, Emily Maitlis ★★★☆☆

I found this book enjoyable, interesting and funny at times. As someone who is interested in journalism and admires Emily Maitlis for her wit and manner when interviewing, I was excited to read it. However, I felt it lacked depth. It reads as a snapshot diary documenting various interviews, but offering little in depth insight into the philosophies behind news-making and journalism. Maybe I expected to much from it, but I felt she could have gone deeper as she certainly has the capabilities to do so. However, still an interesting read.

Reading stats

Average rating – 3.8

Books read – 8

Pages read – 2, 276

What I’m currently reading

I’m currently still reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists but I’m so close to finishing! I’ve been reading it in-between the sixteen or so other books I have read for the past couple of months, hence why it seems like I’ve been a bit slow. I have to read it in small chunks as I’m trying to really take it in. I am actually writing a piece on it for another publication so I want to read thoroughly. I must admit, there were a few sections in the middle that dragged somewhat, but I’m currently on a bit that’s really good! I think it will be a book that ends up having a significant impact on me and the way I think.

Final thoughts

I’m actually feeling very happy with myself in terms of reading. For three years whilst I was at university, I just didn’t find the time to read for pleasure and I am so pleased that this is something I am able to do. COVID has helped obviously, but I think I would be reading just as much anyway. This month I reached 30 books read so far this year which is crazy! I sent myself a target of 50 at the start of the year and thought that was ambitious!

I’ve had a couple of really great comments and feedback recently on my reviews – saying they are really in depth and thought out which is wonderful to hear. However, it has got me thinking, am I perhaps writing reviews which are too in depth? Would it be better to adopt more of a chatty, informal style or still stick to the ‘rigorous’ type approach. I’ve tried doing the short and snappy style which I enjoy, but sometimes it doesn’t feel right for certain books. If you have any thoughts on this, please let me know!

Happy reading and best wishes as always,

Violet xxx

Enjoy my reviews? Buy me a coffee to support my blog!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is an author I have wanted to try for a long time, I heard about Hot Milk from listening to a Penguin Books podcast. It was one of those books that I wanted to last for as long as possible. I was disappointed when it ended but immediately felt I could read it again! Not many books do that, so I figured it must be something special.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling…”

Review

Title: Hot Milk

Author: Deborah Levy

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating:  ★★★★★ 

Do not be under any illusions, this is a simple story at first glance, but one which will leave an impact forever. The plot is neat and unassuming, told by a young anthropology graduate as she takes her mother to Spain in search for treatments to cure her various ailments.

Sofia, who is half Greek, half English, for me was an instantly likable protagonist. She’s 25, struggling to know what to do with her life and feels guilty for telling superiors she works in a Coffee House, sleeping above the storage room. She has little savings and a first class degree she doesn’t know what to do with. However, the way she sees the world and the way Levy describes it was enough to take my breath away. Whether it’s the influence of an anthropological background or just the way her mind works, Sofia sees the beautify in everyday life and her surroundings.

Partly, in going to Spain with her mother, Rose, Sofia is prolonging the realities of getting her life started. In between intense, romantic affairs, she has a yearning to complete her academic career but at the same time, likes to blissfully float through life.

“All summer, I had been moon-walking in the digital Milky Way. It’s calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that its gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain.”

p.216

Sofia has always put her life on the line to help her mother, who she is practically a full time career for. She has abandoned her PhD and is living her life aimlessly. The novel begins with the smashing of her beloved laptop screen, which she tells readers, has the entirety of her life on it. Her mother frequently criticizes her and fails to see her merits, thus their relationship is fraught and laced with tension.

Levy creates an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, as Sofia is the mother, caring and nurturing, and Rose abandons her daughter in more ways than one. It’s a portrayal of the mother-daughter bond, but unlike many others.

The title, Hot Milk, feels like it is drawing upon this “interior life” (Erica Wagner, The Guardian, 2016) of that relationship. ‘Hot Milk’ may be symbolic of the life force bond as breast milk (often hot) is the nurturer of new life and physical connection between mother and daughter. However, it could also relate to Sofia’s life as a barista, importantly, when foaming milk to make artisan coffee, the milk must be “hot” but never boiling – as this will create acidity, ruining the taste of the coffee. Hot milk therefore, could be symbolic of the importance of clarity – be that in relationships, life or other meanings. Furthermore, breast feeding is continually depicted with Sofia’s step mother feeding her sister, it feels apt that Levy draws upon these images to make poignant anecdotes on the mother-daughter relationship.

Another key bit of symbolism are the use of the ‘medusa’s’ – the local term for jellyfish. Sofia likes to frequent the sea near their rented apartment and often gets stung by jellyfish – she does this so often that she actually takes the life guard who treats these stings, for a lover. The significance of drawing upon the medusa didn’t come to me at first, but now it seems more significant. The medusa stings are likely to represent her fraught relationship with her mother, as the stings are something she endures again and again, eventually barely feeling any pain. We always tend to do more for those we love, even if they hurt us, don’t we?

Additionally, Rose’s condition eventually eats Sofia alive as she realises she cannot permanently put her life on hold, the frequent stings are a reminder of this power her mother has over her and the pain she has inflicted. Finally, there is also the sexual element, her stings are drawn upon as being a point of pleasure in sexual encounters. The sting in itself, could represent the sudden pang of sexual desire.

Levy creates a prose which is poetic and will change the way you view your own surroundings long after reading the final page. It makes the reading experience effortless and lyrical – in some passages, it reads like pure poetry.

This book had everything I could possibly want in a reading experience. The prose is beautiful, the protagonist intriguing, and the story simple yet alluring. It deals with a number of themes but essentially feels like a coming of age novel. It’s above all, a story that documents an individual’s self discovery and a, “powerful novel of interior life,” the reader truly becomes a fly on the wall in Sofia’s small, but intricate world.

Every so often everyone comes across a special book which has a lingering impact on them – and for me, this is one of those. During the reading process, I felt the density and beauty of the language sink into me as I became invested in Sofia’s life. The description made me want to see life in a different way and appreciate my surroundings with new vigor. I feel like Levy could make even a blank wall seem appealing!

Hours after finishing, I could still feel the novel’s presence, it made the perception of my own world more acute, and I found myself evaluating how everyday things truly look. I feel like this novel and its impact will always be at the back of my subconscious, luring me in and waiting to be read again.

My favourite quote: “I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?” (p.202)