The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things. — St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I
Such is the epigraph to Donna Tartt’s second novel. Her new release, The Goldfinch, was recommended to me some weeks ago somewhere in the overlap of my goodreads account, my Amazon recommendations, and the list of books available to me as a popmatters.com reviewer. Noting, at that time, that the book would not be released for several weeks, I thought I would give Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, a try, partly due to its near-unanimous rave reviews and partly to see if I’d have any interest in her latest book.
Well, I enjoyed that book so much that I moved right along to Tartt’s second book, The Little Friend, which received more mixed reviews than its predecessor. But you know, I really liked it. The Secret History was enormous fun, and smart fun at that– but it was just fun; I don’t think I’ll ever read it again and I didn’t take anything away from it when I finished. The Little Friend, meanwhile, showcases Tartt’s already proven talent for creating a rich, moody, eerie atmosphere and is also more earnestly meditative than her debut novel. The musings of Secret History‘s Richard Papen were, fittingly for the book’s milieu, loftily intellectual and ever so slightly pretentious. TLF, like Secret History, revolves around a murder, but its protagonist is not an upstart college student. Instead it is the clever, neglected, angry, and brave twelve-year-old Harriet Dufresnes, whose brother, Robin, was murdered when he was nine and she was just an infant.
Since Robin’s death, Harriet’s father has taken a job out of town– and a mistress– and her mother has mentally and emotionally vacated the premises. Harriet and her older sister are subject to the supervision of their maid, Ida Rhew, and the occasional interference of their domineering grandmother, Edie, whose disappointment that her two granddaughters are not Robin leaks out in various unintentional but nonetheless hurtful gestures. Allison was four and with Robin when he was killed in their backyard, but any memories she has only come out in her dreams. The murderer has never been discovered. The summer she is twelve, Harriet decides that she will find and kill her brother’s murderer.
But if you’re looking for a murder-mystery, The Little Friend is not the book for you. It involves a murder and a mystery, but these are tools, not the trade, of Tartt’s book. It slowly becomes clear that the book’s epigraph is a warning of sorts. The novel is actually a lovely, dark, and absorbing version of the kind of plot trope that might be called “That One Really Important Summer.” Don’t worry. Tartt’s book is much more eloquent than my description of it!
What I mean to say is that the real importance of the story lies in what Harriet learns about nearly everything except the murder. The fact that her brother was killed saddens her, but the fact that everyone seems to have given up on finding his murderer enrages her:
With distaste, Harriet reflected upon how life had beaten down the adults she knew, every single grown-up. Something strangled them as they grew older…they stopped fighting and resigned themselves to what happened…”That’s life, Harriet, that’s just how it is, you’ll see.” Well: Harriet would not see…She would strike now–while she still could, before her nerve broke and her spirit failed her–with nothing to sustain her but her own gigantic solitude.
Robin’s asphyxiation by hanging is tragic; the metaphorical asphyxiation of the adults around Harriet is unacceptable. I suspect many readers, whether or not they like Harriet, will respect her fierce personal brand of idealism. You hope that she will never stop fighting. For my part, I loved her, not least when Tartt reminds us that, after all, she is just a little girl who is not much loved by the people around her:
Foursies. Fivesies. She was the jacks champion of America. She was the jacks champion of the world. With an enthusiasm only slightly forced, she shouted out scores, cheered for herself, rocked back on her heels in amazement at her own performance. For a while, her agitation even felt like fun. But no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t quite forget that nobody cared if she was having fun or not.
With no guiding force to tether her to reality, Harriet constructs stories like these to give her life meaning. Even in the most dangerous situations, her perception of events is shaped by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling: “Daylight flooded in through the broken roof; the inside of the tank glowed a lush, emerald green: the green of swamps and jungles, of Mowgli’s abandoned cities.” Such descriptions alternate with the imagery of rot and decay, underscoring Harriet’s apprehension that nearly everything eventually goes to shit.
Harriet sets out to find a murderer, but along the way discovers that reading a story and living it are two different things. So if in the end, The Little Friend turns out to be a different story than what we thought, it’s only fitting.