As a Written Leaf: The Little Friend

By: Elyanna Saperstein  |  February 13, 2021

By Elyanna Saperstein

“The Little Friend” 
By: Donna Tart 
Genre: Historical Fiction 
Total score: 7/10
Book in five words: Sixties, small town, murder portrait 
If you love: Any of Donna Tartt’s previous work, long atmospheric novels, and the phrase “It is what it is” — this is the book for you.
If you hate: simplistic dynamics, modern city drama, and short books — this is the book for you.

Donna Tartt first appeared on the literary radar with the release of her debut novel “The Secret History”. Recently, her novel “The Goldfinch” has received attention from critics and fans alike. Today, I will be reviewing her Pulitzer prize-winning book “The Little Friend”. 

Having read “The Goldfinch”, I went in with high hopes. “The Goldfinch” stands out for its beautiful portrait of adolescence, buttressed by action-packed subplots that reveal the depths of a youth’s inner life. In contrast, “The Little Friend” feels distinctly more disjointed. The main plot of a girl seeking to avenge her younger brother’s murder is intertwined with the subplot of her completely female family (the male figures are all long gone) and their foibles. Though the characters are beautifully portrayed, there is little to no development among the adults. The protagonist’s mother is emotionally incapacitated after her son’s death throughout the entirety of the novel. This staticity is emblematic of all the adult characters. Furthermore, while the decadent descriptions that have made Donna Tartt iconic are present, it is hard to say how they concretely contribute to the story. 

The book, despite its length (over 500 pages), fails to find a satisfactory conclusion. The novel sets up several major conflicts such as the murderer’s identity, the character flaws of the adult characters, and the protagonist’s journey, yet resolves none of them. 

I rated this book as highly as I did, not due to its plot, but for the writing itself. Never one to lose herself to overflowing verbosity, Tartt manages to impart the intense spirit of both the time and place she tries to capture. She does this without resorting to either stream of consciousness descriptions or lengthy passages. If you are willing to enter the book, the atmosphere will quickly overshadow any of the critiques. It allows you to forgive the exposition on characters that never really change — though they are continuously revealed through the book.  

Despite the lackluster finish, there is a silver lining to the overall lack of character development in this novel. While we usually expect characters to shift and grow throughout a narrative, the refusal of  the characters of “The Little Friend” to do so sends a different message. 

Very often throughout our own lives, we expect others to change. Whether it’s a parent, sibling, or friend, we assume that people’s actions are symbols of growth instead of manifestations of the person they already are. The characters in “The Little Friend” don’t change. Rather their characters reflect differently under different lights. They become neither better nor worse people. They do not end braver, stronger, or weaker. They simply are put in different situations to which their core selves react. There’s a certain sense of realism that sets this story apart from others.