Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Love its parts, not its whole

Maggie says:
It was with huge anticipation and delight that I sunk into Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend. You may remember that Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, is one of my all-time favorite books for the gorgeous way it strikes a balance between intellect and lyricism. Tartt’s brilliant and her writing shows it.

In The Little Friend, the makings for another great book were all there: Not set in a cold New England town this time (which I know a thing or two about), but instead set in the South, which I also know a thing or two about. Not first-person narrated by a self-conscious college guy, this time we get third-person narration featuring a spunky, smart young girl named Harriet. I can hang with spunky, smart girls. Less a tale of friends binding and then unraveling through murder, this one takes place a decade after a brother’s murder with the unsolved weight of it hanging in the air as heavy as the humidity. Sounds good. Throw in some snake-handling, some class and race conflict, some kooky Southerners, religion of all shades and stripes, and this should have been my favorite book ever.

And yet.

Something didn’t quite gel here. I remember reading a Tartt interview when The Little Friend was published where she admitted it took her ten years to finish this second novel. She felt haunted by the success of the first – written when she was only 28 – and struggled to write a book about her home that was distinctly different than the critically-acclaimed novel that spoke to her college years. To be honest, it was sometimes a struggle to finish reading it.

If only I loved this book in whole as much as I love its parts. I love the childlike precociousness of Harriet and the true-blue way her friend Hely loves her. I love the childhood summer spirit that’s so well captured in their long afternoons. I love Harriet’s grandmother and great-aunts, the way they live with a shared identity yet each very separately, each the fabric of each other’s stories, each the rock of the other. I love the small-town feel with the family everyone’s scared of, the Sunday School teacher who’s not exactly Christian in his business practices, the underbelly of the town mixed with “the Club” and its crowd. I love the tone of a death you can never overcome, the influence an absence has over a town in a way a presence never could, the shadow that never lifts. I love reading about the seediness of meth-making culture, the hysteria of drug addiction, the suffocation of family that makes you as desperate as you are loyal. But I don’t love the crime-avenging here or the adventure tale. It just doesn’t work for me.

It occurs to me that we remember parts of our childhoods and growing up in these miraculous passages of characters and details. What we forget is the everyday-ness that binds all of that together. There’s a reason we’re not all writing epic novels about the summer we were 12: it’s probably more the stuff of a novella or a short story collection. So should this have been.

But of course, I’m absolutely itching for Tartt to write number three.

And: I’m heading to the beach in two weeks, so I’m accepting any and all book recommendations for the days upon days I’ll spend doing nothing but lying in the sun, reading, and swimming.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solid review. My wife read it and said it wasn't as good as the original and now I can see more clearly why. Not a big fan of fiction myself, too much work just to get worked up over someone elses made up problems. I gots my own issues you know! Plus I resent being manipulated by some author into feeling things they want me to feel. Something creepy about it. Thanks.


11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Book reco for vacation: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I just went on vacation with it myself.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"dancer from the dance" by andrew holleran

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zadie Smith ... White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty ...

10:48 PM  
Blogger Maggie said...

Love Zadie Smith! Besides "Secret History," "White Teeth" is my other cannot-believe-this-is-a-first-novel fave.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous andrew said...

This is weird, I'm reading The LIttle Friend right now, too, and I'm having the same problem with it. I'm reminded of a creative writing teacher I had at UNM who said as long as you have good characters, the story will unfold on its own. This is an exception to that rule.

9:01 AM  

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