Day 853: The Little Friend

Cover for The Little FriendI didn’t decide to read The Little Friend until recently. That was because I was one of the few people who didn’t like Donna Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. I thought The Goldfinch was wonderful, however, so I decided to give The Little Friend a try.

This novel shows influences from practically every modern southern novel I’ve ever read, a bit of the Comptons from Faulkner, a touch of To Kill a Mockingbird, and lashings of Southern Gothic. The novel’s world is a harsh one, although not as twisted as that of Flannery O’Connor.

The main character is 12-year-old Harriet Dufresnes, a bookworm and misfit in 1970’s Alexandria, Mississippi. She is from a once-wealthy family whose rotting mansion, no longer in the family’s possession, is out in the countryside. Harriet lives in town with her mother Charlotte and sister Allison. But whatever future they might have had was prematurely blighted by the death of Harriet’s brother Robin, at the age of nine, 12 years earlier. Robin was found hanging from the tree at the edge of the yard, and his murder has never been solved. Their household has been made miserable by the ceaseless mourning and lassitude of Harriet’s mother.

Harriet is facing a long, lonely summer when she decides to avenge the death of her brother. She understands from the family’s maid Ida that Robin and Danny Ratliff were bitter enemies, so she decides that Danny, who is now a small-time criminal and meth addict, must be the murderer. She begins stalking him with the help of her best friend, Hely.

The Ratliff family embodies almost cartoonish O’Connor Southern Gothic. Farish, the oldest brother, is a half-crazed and hyperactive meth cooker and dealer. Although he talks about fighting in the Vietnam War, he spent it in a mental institution and is said to have calmed down since he had a head injury. Eugene is a street corner preacher who is inept at preaching. Curtis is a sweet-natured boy of limited mental capacity, and Gam, the boys’ grandmother, relentlessly favors Farish and does her best to undermine the other brothers’ efforts to leave their lives of crime.

Danny is rather a more tragic figure than anything else, but I was more interested in Harriet’s life than in her interactions with the Ratliffs. That situation provides the tension and danger of the plot, but I was sometimes bored by it and other times found it grotesquely funny.

Harriet’s family is the essence of dysfunction. Her mother is almost completely self-obsessed, spending all her time mourning Robin. She neglects her two daughters and stays in her bedroom. Harriet is dependent on Ida for any attention or care in a house that is only held from chaos by Ida’s efforts. Allison, although 16, is timid and milky and almost doesn’t exist as a character.

The other influences on Harriet are her grandmother Edie and her great-aunts. They are really the only points of stability in her life, especially her great-aunt Libby.

By and large, I was impressed by the energetic writing and the imagination of The Little Friend. The parts I don’t admire as much are the forays into an almost clichéd Southern Gothic of the Ratliff brothers. Still, I found it hard to put down this novel.

Related Posts

The Goldfinch

The Optimists’s Daughter

Wise Blood

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6 thoughts on “Day 853: The Little Friend

  1. Drunk Off Rhetoric February 22, 2016 / 1:19 pm

    I just got this book, not sure when I’ll give it a read though. I’ve read some of The Secret History and wasn’t too impressed either :/ Hopefully this is a more interesting read.

    • whatmeread February 22, 2016 / 1:34 pm

      I liked this better than The Secret History. I really liked The Goldfinch.

  2. Naomi February 22, 2016 / 2:17 pm

    I once saw this book at a book sale, but didn’t buy it because the cover was so creepy. Up until now, I still didn’t know much about it, even though I plan to eventually read both of her other books. I think I got a bad impression about it the first time I heard anyone say anything about it at all, and then assumed her other 2 books were much better. Funny how that happens. This actually sounds good, and the next time I see it i will just avoid looking at the cover and buy it!

    • whatmeread February 22, 2016 / 2:19 pm

      There is a reason for the creep factor, though, but the cover makes it seem like a horror story, and it’s not. It is a little scary at times, but not too bad.

  3. Carolyn O February 22, 2016 / 4:56 pm

    Such a helpful review (The Goldfinch is still sitting on my shelve, but I’m one of the people who LOVED The Secret History)–I think I’ll hold off on this one. Southern Gothic (and related work) isn’t my cup of tea.

    • whatmeread February 23, 2016 / 7:30 am

      I’m glad it helped. The Southern Gothic was only part of the mix, though.

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