Bestseller Breakdown: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt


You may have noticed that there’s been a big gap between this post and by last Bestseller Breakdown post, about Donna Tartt’s first novel The Secret History.  This could be because I’ve been generally busy now I’ve settled into Jakarta life.  It could also be because The Little Friend is a looooonng book.  But I tend to prioritise and find time for reading if I’m enjoying a book, despite what else is going on in my life, so I don’t think those excuses are going to cut it.

I know the real reason.  I just didn’t enjoy this book as much as the other Tartt books I’ve read.  Despite admiring the writing and enjoying aspects of the novel, it didn’t have the same compulsion for me: I wasn’t desperate to get back to reading it, and I considered giving up a few times because I didn’t think the pay off would be worth it.  I think this is the test of a bestseller: if a book makes you forget all the other books you could be reading and really focus in on the one you are.  Tartt’s other books did this without a doubt, but although I liked The Little Friend, it wasn’t on the scale as the others in terms of power for me.  To put it into a scalable context, I gave this book three stars on Good Reads, whereas the others were definite five-starers for me.

Having read them all in quick succession, I’ve been mulling why it is that this one is slightly less gripping.  And I’ve come to some conclusions (I’ll get to them), which I think maybe explain why some readers considered The Little Friend a bit of a disappointment after The Secret History.

First, let’s do a run down of the stats.

What people are saying:

Critical Reception:

After publication in 2002, critical responses were mostly positive, and strove not to compare the book too heavily with its predecessor.  The Guardian praised Tartt’s ‘mastery of suspense’; The New York Times called it a ‘large and satisfying’; Salon referred to Tartt’s ‘sorcery’. The Observer was positive about the opening and the way Tartt deals with a grieving family, but concluded that the story ‘goes off in a thousand directions’, all of which have merit, but lack focus.

Awards: Won the WHSmith Literary Award 2003, Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2003.

Reader Response:

The overall reader response to The Little Friend was considerably less positive than for The Secret History or The Goldfinch.  As you can see below, the majority of people on gave the book only one star.  Amongst the overall reviews, there’s a big difference to her other two novels which had a majority of 5 star reviews from all websites.  The majority of people (31% of the total reviewers) gave the book three stars, with only 26% percent giving 4 and 5 stars combined, compared to 76% and 77% for The Secret History and The Goldfinch respectively.

Of course, many of reviews compared the two novels, which may be a little unfair.  The people who praised it did so for the writing style, the characters and the setting.  Those who were disappointed tended to praise the beginning, but claim it didn’t follow through on its promise.

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Aspects of the novel:

Plot or character driven? 

I think maybe this is the problem of this book, and why it’s not such a page turner as her other two, which are very much focused on one character.  Using an omniscient narrator, Tartt moves between the minds of her different characters.  This is great as it gives us an in-depth profile of each one, but means the book is much less focused and feels like more of a study of the people in the small town rather than a plot-driven narrative.

There definitely is a plot, which I would most accurately be described as a quest narrative: Harriet’s crusade to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder.  It has also been called an children’s adventure story for adults, and a deep-South murder mystery.  The problem with all of these definitions is that they promise the reader a solution to the original premise: who killed Robin?  And we never get the solution to that initial question, which is why we read on after such an excellent beginning, and why perhaps we are disappointed that we never get our answer.


A town in Mississippi in 1970.  Beautifully drawn scenes in the rambling old house, the town itself and the area around it.  According to my Kindle stats, there are 21 different scene settings in the novel.


The book is split into a prologue and seven chapters, split into varying narrative sections. As you can see below the number of pages per chapter and number of sections per chapter varies greatly, but the average length of a narrative section runs between 4 and 7 pages depending on the section.  The last chapter is almost 150 pages long (over a quarter of the book’s length).

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In the Prologue, the book shows us the day of Robin’s death in great detail, and the impact of losing Robin on the family.  From Chapter 1, the book jumps to the present day when Harriet is now a young girl, and focuses in on one summer.


According to my Kindle stats, the book has 118 characters of varying importance.  All are well drawn and excellently crafted (see more information in Why do we keep reading? below).

Why do we keep reading?

In terms of reasons to love a book, or to keep reading it, The Little Friend has much in common with The Secret History and The Goldfinch.


  • An arresting opening scene with a mysterious hook

The Secret History had a murder, The Goldfinch a man on the run, and The Little Friend has the arguably even more exciting murder or suicide of a young boy.  How did Robin get up in the tree?  Why did nobody hear anything?  And are his sisters, who were sitting on the porch step, traumatised by what occurred in the garden.

It had me hooked.  The first few chapters do a brilliant job of painting in the impact of Robin’s death on the family, and how they were altered afterwards.  But I wanted to get to the good part: what had happened on the porch and why?  And those answers never came.  No matter how interesting Harriet and her initial attempts to solve the mystery was, it wasn’t the story I had been promised.  The whole book felt like a red herring, and once I figured out maybe a third of the way in that the focus of the book had moved away from the murder, I became less and less interested.


  • Interesting, well-drawn characters

The characters of The Little Friend, like those of Tartt’s other books, were excellently imagined.  The bold Harriet, the dreamy Allison, the lost-soul Mother, the sharp-tongued Grandmother, the wishy-washy aunts, and the bad-boys of the town.  Even the dead Robin, who appears only in the memories of others, rang off the page.  However, it all felt like a distraction.


  • Narrative voice

The Little Friend differed from Tartt’s other novels in that it didn’t stick to one narrative voice, but moved between the characters heads.  This meant we had a clear overview of what everyone was thinking, but also made it harder to find the focus of the novel.  And that’s what I spent a lot of time doing.  Was the focus the murder?  Was it Harriet’s crusade? Or was it the bad-boy brothers on the other side of town?  This disintegration of voice made me less likely to want to continue on with the book, as I wasn’t sure where we were headed.

 Why is The Little Friend a bestseller?

I think I’ve already made myself clear on the way in which I think The Little Friend is less of a page-turner than Tartt’s other novels.  After an eleven year wait, this book was inevitably going to sell, and I think the reason it was a bestseller was in large part because of the success of The Secret History.  This novel has many of its own qualities, and I’m sure it would have been talked about had it been her first novel.  But I think the reason it became a bestseller was mainly because of the hype surrounding Tartt as a novelist.

However, for me, The Goldfinch had all the magic and more of The Secret History and shows a full return to form for Tartt.  I am ridiculously excited to see what she writes next.

Have you read The Little Friend?  What did you think?

Want more? Read my original Bestseller Breakdown posts for The Secret History and The Goldfinch.

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