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.

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Day 571: The Goldfinch

Cover for The GoldfinchBest Book of the Week!
Theo Decker is hiding in an Amsterdam hotel, ill and terrified. He is afraid to set foot in the street. Through most of The Goldfinch, Theo relates the roots of his troubles, which lie 15 years in the past.

Thirteen-year-old Theo is out in New York City for a day with his mother. Normally, this would be a day he’d enjoy, but he is in trouble at his prep school, and they are on the way to school for a meeting. They are early, though, and his mother wants to stop at the museum to look at an exhibit.

Inside the museum, he spots an unusual couple—a hunch-backed old man and a fairy-like red-haired girl. He is only half attentive to his mother’s explanations of the paintings because he is looking at the girl. They stop to view a painting called The Goldfinch, one of the few remaining works by a Dutch artist named Fabritius.

Theo’s mother goes off to the gift shop while Theo trails after the girl. A few minutes later, Theo is knocked out by an explosion from a terrorist attack. When he comes to, the museum is oddly empty, but he finds the old man dying. The man gives him a ring and tells him to take it to an address, and then he suggests that Theo pick up The Goldfinch from a pile of dust and take it with him. He does, an act that becomes a defining moment of his life.

Assuming that his mother got out okay, Theo goes home, but he soon finds that she was killed. Since his ne’er-do-well father disappeared from their lives, it has been just the two of them for years. Social services ends up taking him to stay with the wealthy family of one of his school friends, the Barbours.

Suffering from grief and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, Theo tries to hide his insecurity and discomfort. As formal as the Barbour household is, he likes Mrs. Barbour and worries that the family might want him to leave. Eventually, he takes the old man’s ring to the address and meets the man’s partner Hobie and the girl, Pippa, who was badly injured in the explosion. She soon goes away to live with her aunt, but Theo continues to visit Hobie, who is a furniture restorer. And he is always in love with Pippa.

Just after Theo is invited to spend the summer in Maine with the Barbours, his whole life changes again. His father arrives and removes him abruptly from New York to Las Vegas. Theo is left to himself most of the time in a deserted suburb at the edge of the desert. His father at first appears to be well off, but soon it is clear he is living on the edges. Theo befriends another outcast, a Ukranian boy named Boris, and the two begin a slide into drugs and alcohol and the margins of society. Even after he returns to New York and tries to pull his life together, the secret of the painting serves as both a pleasure and a hidden terror.

It seems as if I am giving away a lot, but I have covered only the beginning of this long, involving novel. It explores such themes as the trauma of loss, the yearning for love, and the fragility of happiness and the present. In losing his mother, Theo seems to have lost his moral compass, so that even as he tries to help people, he creates problems for them and himself.

Tartt’s characters are complex and fully realized. Even the villains have facets to their personalities. Although Theo thinks of his father as a scoundrel—and he certainly has few redeeming qualities—Boris points out to him that when Boris was alone with nothing, Theo’s father took him in. An older Theo fears he has too much of his father in him.

The Goldfinch remains a golden, potent symbol throughout the novel. Theo loves the painting and feels that owning it somehow gives him stature. Yet at the same time he is terrified he’ll be found with it. Just as the bird in the picture is shackled, so Theo is captive to the painting.

Throughout the novel Theo disappointed me with his self-destructive tendencies even though he has good intentions. Still, Tartt tells a story that absolutely impels you to keep reading. This is a wonderful job of storytelling.