Re-Reading The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

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After reading The Goldfinch I knew I had to re-read Donna Tartt’s previous two books. After re-reading The Secret History it was The Little Friend’s turn.

A lot of people have commented to me that they loved The Secret History but were not fans of The Little Friend. I distinctly remember loving it the first time around so beyond the fact that The Little Friend was not The Secret History I was not sure why it wasn’t well received. I was also curious to see the influence of Charles Portis’ True Grit after reading that it was Donna Tartt’s favourite book growing up and was part of the inspiration behind Harriet.

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As with my re-read of The Secret History my memory was extremely shoddy. I remember Harriet being very bookish and that she thought she could solve the murder of her brother twelve years earlier and that this led her to becoming entangled with local meth dealers. I also distinctly remember a scene with snakes. But of course there was so much more going on The other impression I remember having was that The Little Friend was somehow a darker, modern-day To Kill A Mockingbird. That impression I can dispense with completely now after a second read.

I can definitely see why some readers were unsatisfied with The Little Friend. It is a dense book and the central plot is never resolved and it is for these very reasons that I loved this book again the second time around. Harriet’s life is full of contradictions. Her life is both insular and enriched. Her family is privileged as well as meager. And she is fiercely independent while being totally unprepared for what that means.

A twelve-year-old girl is never going to solve a 12-year-old murder. And that isn’t the point of the story. But how one death can damage the lives of so many and what the consequences of that damage are years later is the territory Tartt explores. And explores so well.

I loved every part of Harriet’s world that Donna Tartt creates. You get the sense that everything in this world is deeply familiar to Tartt as it is also the place where she grew up. While I was looking for similarities in Harriet to Maddy Ross from True Grit I saw more similarities with what little I know about Donna Tartt, particular in the physical description of Harriet. I also got the feeling of a personal connection to not only the place but the people in the book in particular the three sisters (Harriet’s grandmother and aunts). These weren’t just characters she invented but inspired by people she knew and knows.

And the snakes! Forget a scene with snakes. There were multiple scenes with snakes. Each more terrifying than the previous one. Tartt uses them brilliantly both for their physical, actual danger and their symbolic threat.

If you haven’t read The Little Friend before don’t let the naysayers put you off. Donna Tartt is an exceptional talent and this is an utterly original novel.If you have read it before and weren’t a fan I suggest giving it another go especially now post-The Goldfinch.

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This tapped into emotions no other book has done with me before.

9781408704950Review – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is a true enigma. She is a phenomenal bestseller with a cult following. There isn’t very much known about her but you wouldn’t call her a reclusive author either. The Goldfinch is her third novel in twenty years, a decade gap between each book. All of them worth the wait.

I can distinctly remember first discovering Donna Tartt. When I first started doing the buying 11 years ago there was a lot of fuss about a novel called The Little Friend because it was the author’s first book since The Secret History. I had no idea who the author was or why, after ten years, there was such excitement and anticipation for her second novel. My rep, who was selling the book in at the time, told me to read The Secret History. Which of course I did and was totally blown away.

It was unlike anything I had read before (or since). I am not big on classics, ancient or modern, but the world Tartt created in The Secret History sucked me straight in (just like the book’s protagonist Richard). She is one of the few writers whose writing is truly mesmerizing. I was straight on the bandwagon after that, dying for a copy of The Little Friend. Which I also loved.

A lot of Donna Tartt fans were disappointed with The Little Friend but I was not one of them. I think people were expecting another The Secret History which was always going to be impossible and Tartt gave us something completely different. The Little Friend is a bit of a modern-day To Kill A Mockingbird without the anchor of a parent and where the outside world is full of much more menace. 12-year-old Harriet, bright and bookish, believes she can solve the mysterious death of her younger brother 12 years ago. The death fractured her family and Harriet is determined to set things right. Again Tartt’s writing is captivating and I can still vividly remember a scene involving Harriet’s best friend Hely and some snakes. I later found out that Harriet was inspired by Mattie Ross in True Grit by Charles Portis, one of Donna Tartt’s favourite books growing up,which also has another unforgettable scene involving snakes.

In many ways The Goldfinch is a combination of elements of her first two novels but the only thing familiar is the once again mesmerizing writing that draws you into her world immediately. When I first started The Goldfinch it felt like I was holding my breath and when I came up for air the first thing I wanted to do was re-read The Secret History and The Little Friend. I’d forgotten the power of Tartt’s writing and wanted to re-immerse myself in as much of it as I could find. And then I plunged back into The Goldfinch.

The central character of the novel is Theo Decker and a painting called The Goldfinch. Through traumatic circumstances the painting comes into his possession and becomes a talisman throughout his life. I am not into art or paintings but Tartt has this ability to draw you into any subject, in very detailed and extraordinarily intriguing ways (including antique furniture and its restoration!). The book is almost 800 pages, every one of which is totally absorbing, compelling and majestic. Unlike Tartt’s previous two novels this story is also wide-ranging, from New York to Las Vegas and Amsterdam. The Secret History and The Little Friend were very localized stories where as The Goldfinch is much more spread out while still hauntingly focused. It is also very philosophical and tapped into emotions no other book has done with me before.

I hope we do not have to wait another ten years before getting to read Donna Tartt again but then again she can take as long as she wants. In the meantime I am going to revisit her first two books something I should have done before now but that’s the magic and the joy of great books. They are always there to be enjoyed again and again, even when you forget!

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Re-Reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

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Review – The Secret History by Donna Tartt

With Donna Tartt’s highly anticipated The Goldfinch due for release on October 23  (don’t miss out on our special pre-order offer) and remembering how brilliant Donna Tartt is I decided it was time to re-read The Secret History. I don’t normally have time to reread books because there are just so many books, new and old, that I haven’t read but Donna Tartt is so amazing I wanted to revisit her.

The first time I read The Secret History I can distinctly remember being blown away. Just like the book’s 9780141037691main character Richard I was sucked into the world of Hampden College and the tight-knit group studying Ancient Greek. Having originally read the book 10-11 years ago my memory was very fuzzy and I remember the book being about Richard falling in with this elite group who thought themselves above everybody else, so much so, that they believed they could get away with murder. But they couldn’t get away from the guilt and the secrets after the fact.

Reading it the second time (and being 10+ years older) changed the whole perspective of the book for me. I was around the same age as Richard the first time around so I guess I was susceptible to the charms of both the college and its inhabitants. Second time around I was much more aware of the subtle manipulation of Richard. This was probably in part to having already read the book but also part being older (and hopefully a little wiser). Instead of being charmed, like Richard,  by Henry, Francis and the twins I found them completely pretentious and detached from the real world. Their money, their attitude, their cleverness hid their naivety and I think on my first reading I (again like Richard) was the more naive one.

What I found really interesting was I pretty much remembered most of the book up to Bunny’s murder but not a thing afterwards. The whole unwinding of each member of the group and the group itself felt completely new to me. I knew it happened but Bunny’s funeral and the eventual ending had completely escaped me. The first time I read the book I felt the murder changed everyone involved. The weight of guilt and having to keep a secret ate away at everyone until everything disintegrated. This time I don’t think the murder changed anyone, with maybe the exception of Richard. I think the murder just highlighted who each character really was and they eventually turned on one another as they had turned on Bunny.

Despite reading The Secret History with this new perspective (or more likely because of it) I thoroughly enjoyed the book second time around. Donna Tartt is an immense talent and is well worth reading again and again.

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Pre-order The Goldfinch here…

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WIN a Donna Tartt, signed and numbered, collectors edition boxed set of The Secret History & The Little Friend worth $350

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9781408704950Donna Tartt is a true enigma. She is a phenomenal bestseller with a cult following. There isn’t very much known about her but you wouldn’t call her a reclusive author either. The Goldfinch is her third novel in twenty years, a decade gap between each book. All of them worth the wait.

And the wait is almost over. The Goldfinch will be released on October 23rd and we have a very special, exclusive prize to giveaway.

9781408802922Pre-order The Goldfinch before October 23 and go into the draw to win a signed and numbered collectors edition boxed set of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History & The Little Friend worth $350.

This is a must for any Donna Tartt Fan.

Pre-order The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt…

Also available in hardback and a special limited deluxe edition

Here’s the blurb..

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.

The Ottoman Motel

The Ottoman MotelA story a day published on a public blog, the seed of a story kicked off on this blog, three different ideas for a book title, and the paradox of being presented with your own book and the opportunity to purchase loads of copies of it as part of your other job … They’re just some of the elements that have gone into Brisbane-based writer Christopher Currie’s first novel, The Ottoman Motel.

Currie is known to many readers for his Furious Horses blog, for which he wrote and published something daily with the public shame of not achieving his daily goal inspiring him keep putting fingers to keyboard. Others have discovered his finely crafted work through such publications as The Lifted Brow and Small Room magazine. I caught up with him to find out where the idea for the novel, its title, and artwork came from, and whether Furious Horses played a role …

Can you please outline briefly what the book’s about?

The main character is an 11-year-old boy called Simon who is on a road trip with his parents to visit his estranged grandmother, who has fallen ill, who lives in a small coastal town called Reception on the Northern NSW coast. They check into a hotel (The Ottoman Motel, strangely enough), and Simon’s parents go off to visit a local landmark and leave Simon alone.

He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, his parents have gone. The community of Reception seems kind at first: the town’s police officer takes an active interest and a local family takes him in, but Simon soon realises that maybe he can’t trust anyone. They disappearance of his parents has had an effect on the town, an effect that no one could have anticipated …

How did you come up with this idea?

This was my first go at a full-length manuscript, having very much cut my teeth writing short fiction. The story developed out of two or three short stories I had been playing around with. The relationship between children and parents, the idea of a small tourist town that shuts down in winter, the competitive streak between children meeting for the first time: these are a few themes that started me off.

Being a short story writer, the first version of The Ottoman Motel actually consisted of eight different points of view, which was probably me finding a way to get around committing myself to a sustained long narrative. While this was a good exercise in voice, it didn’t do much for narrative tension or mystery, both of which are important to the story.

The final version is pared down to three voices: Simon, Madaline (the local police officer) and Tarden (a fisherman who is the last person to see Simon’s parents alive). As with much of my writing, I worked without a rigid plan, and let the characters evolve in their own way. This led me (and them) through some surprising twists and turns and onto an ending that I hope does justice to the rest of the story.

The Ottoman Motel is a great title and the cover, and the water-soaked silhouette in particular is brilliant. Can you tell us how both came about?

Embarrassingly enough, The Ottoman Motel was not my choice of title, although I have since seen sense. As this story has been with me for over 10 years, from the very first instance, it had been called From the Deep End Table (which makes sense once you read it) and I was deeply attached to the title. Unfortunately, the first thing my editor told me in our very first face-to-face meeting was ‘We’ve got to get rid of that title’.

Then it was called Reception (the name of the town, and with obvious other overtones), which I was just getting used to when my editor came up with The Ottoman Motel. After a week’s worth of arguing, she convinced me of the change. I couldn’t be happier now, as it seems to be a title that sticks in peoples’ minds.

As for the cover, again I can take no credit. Despite me sending a number of long emails to my long-suffering editor with cover design suggestions, Text Publishing went with their brilliant in-house designer W H Chong, who came up with the stunning cover. I am very particular about covers (I mean, you should have seen the ‘cover suggestion’ emails I sent!), but the jacket image you see now is just about identical to the first one I was shown. As soon as I saw it, I loved it.

As a writer who moonlights as a bookseller when you’re not writing, can you tell us how important it is to nail the cover and title?

Like I say, being a bookseller makes you acutely aware of how important a cover and title can be. Despite the old adage that you should never judge a book by its proverbial, the reality is, if the image doesn’t catch your eye among dozens of others on a bookshop’s shelves, you don’t pick it up and if you don’t pick it up you don’t buy it.

With your book now lining the shelves, how tempting will it be to recommend it when customers come in the vague requests for ‘a good book’ to read?

It’s going to be a quandary. My role in the bookshop I work in is the stock buyer, so I had the strange experience recently of being shown my own book in a sales kit, and having to decide how many to buy in (I told my boss the entire shop would be lined with The Ottoman Motels for the month of May. I was sort of joking.). I may have to abstain from recommending it myself, and rely on others to do the selling for me! Unless it’s someone running a book club who needs 20 copies of a single book, in which case …

The writing process is long and arduous and the thought of sitting down to a blank page/computer screen is incredibly hard. You kicked off your blog, Furious Horses, a couple of years ago to force yourself to write every day. Can you tell us a little about it and how it’s helped you?

Strangely enough, I started Furious Horses off the back of what was then an early version of The Ottoman Motel. I had rushed to write the end of it for the 2007 Australian/Vogel Award (and was surprised to find it had been longlisted) but I had no impetus to work any more on it. Having convinced myself I had nowhere left to go with my writing, my routine just stopped.

The idea behind Furious Horses was to write a short story every day and post it to a blog, but more importantly to tell everyone I knew that I was doing it. In this way, the power of shame forbade me from stopping. I simply had to do it, and I did, and it helped my writing routine no end, as well as raising my profile (‘Hey, you’re that story-a day guy!’).

How many years and incarnations has The Ottoman Hotel been in the works? Has it changed much during that time?

I am a chronic rewriter, so I can’t possibly tell you how many versions there were before I was signed to Text. There have been three major (and I mean major) revisions since I started working with my editor. As I mentioned, there are now only three points of view, and the trajectory of the story has changed greatly.

During the initial drafting of the story, I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time, and as such the narrative was very mysterious and convoluted. The version I have ended up with I hope retains some of that mystery, but has a tighter, more compelling story.

If you had to sum up the book and its target readership in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

If you can imagine Sonya Hartnett, Murray Bail, and Donna Tartt staying up to late to watch Wake in Fright, they would all have a collective dream something like The Ottoman Motel. God, I hate writing those things.

What’s next for you? Is there another novel in the works or a well-earned writing rest?

I’m actually writing a short film at the moment, which is another new challenge for me. Once that’s done, it’s definitely on to another novel. It’s funny, when I was writing this novel, I seemed to have lots of good ideas for other books that I welcomed as distractions. Now they seem to have disappeared …

One-Book Wonder

The Secret HistoryI’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned The Secret History in this past year, including on this very blog. I’ve pondered whether to re-read or not to re-read (that was the question). I’ve also talked about discovering that my favourite black-covered copy was missing and how this discovery was, in part, what led me to a no-more-loaning-out-of-books Scrooge-like snap. And, on various occasions and for various reasons, I’ve talked about the book in many a face-to-face and Facebook-enacted discussion.

While I’m normally wary of re-visiting already read books, I felt compelled to break this rule with The Secret History for a few reasons:

1. Although I remembered that I loved, loved, loved this book, I am ashamed to admit that I couldn’t actually remember much except that there were four students at a college, they were studying Latin, and the character called Bunny dies.

Those of you who haven’t yet read it can relax—I didn’t ruin the punchline; the book opens with Bunny’s death. Sadly, though, the Bunny part was the only part I got right. There were six students, not four—Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Bunny, and Richard, with the latter being the narrator. They were actually studying Ancient Greek (with a wee bit of Latin thrown in) at a university at Vermont, and none of the characters are quite what they seem.

2. I kept waxing lyrical about how profound and amazing and, like, life-changing this book was for me, and recommending that—nay, imploring—friends who hadn’t yet read it to go out and do so immediately (note that I didn’t offer to loan them my copy, which I’d begrudgingly bought to replace the missing one).

The Secret HistoryYet in spite of these strong commendations, I couldn’t actually recall any of the profound-ness of the prose. It was elusive and, as I recalled, depressingly clever in both a cultural reference sense and in a complexity of the understanding of language and human nature. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that it was too clever, to the point of, well, literary wankery.

Indeed, the revisit read reminded me of just how smart Donna Tartt, the author, is. And how intimidating it was to know that this was her first book. Her mastery of the Greek and the seamlessness with which she paints and fleshes out highly intelligent, sometimes-likeable, sometimes-abhorrent characters, and then deftly has their storylines overlap with devastating and gripping consequences is breathtaking. The Secret History is a brilliant piece of fiction and my initial obsession with it was accurate, but I now also realise that its denseness and intellectual bent means that it’s not a book I could read to a casual reader.

I discovered The Secret History when it was either set on a university course I took or was listed as a strong writing influence by a guest lecturer and writer whom I greatly admired. While my memory of precisely how I came to buy it is a little hazy, I know that once I had the book in my hands, I simply devoured it. My friend Carody had it recommended to her while she was studying in London by a friend who described it as the kind of book you’d be so engrossed in you’d miss your tube stop. It’s an incredibly apt description, and quite fitting that it’s also available in the $10 Penguin Modern Classic format, which was devised by Sir Allen Lane while waiting for a train.

The Little Friend3. The final reason I re-read The Secret History is because it didn’t make sense to me that two books by the same author could be so vastly different in readability, engagement, and critical and commercial success. The Secret History is upheld and applauded by everyone who’s encountered it. The Little Friend, Tartt’s follow-up and only other book, is universally deplored. I can’t tell you what the storyline is because I couldn’t get through the book; nor could anyone else I know. It was panned by critics and lay readers alike, I guess, partly because it’s rubbish, and partly because The Secret History raised our expectations of Tartt’s writing prowess to unrepeatable, nosebleed-high heights. Hers was Second Book Syndrome on steroids.

There were something like 10 years between publication of The Secret History and The Little Friend and we haven’t read hide nor hair from Tartt since the latter bombed. I don’t know whether she’s working on something new or whether she’s retreated to lick her wounds (I suspect a little of both), but I don’t expect to see much from her any time soon.

To Kill A MockingbirdNow, though I’ve resolved whether The Secret History is as good as I remember it (however hazily) to be, the question that remains is whether it’s better to be a one-book wonder or to publish more decent-but-not-exceptional books regularly? Harper Lee only ever published one book, the outstanding and groundbreaking To Kill A Mockingbird. Tartt’s tried a second and failed. Will she try a third? And if so, will it be third time (as) lucky (and stellar as the first)?

To Re-Read Or Not To Re-Read: That Is The Question

The Secret HistoryGiven ever-increasing work and study loads and ever-diminishing leisure time (not to mention the ever-increasing demands on that leisure time,) it’s getting harder and harder to carve out dedicated, uninterrupted reading time.

Stand that fact next to the bucket loads of books published annually around the world, and that there are bucket loads more that were published before I was born, and I’m realising that I’ll never be able to read all the books I want to in this lifetime. It’s with this in mind that I feel as though I’m cheating myself and as-yet un-read books each time I consider revisiting a book.

A friend once told me that books should be treated like ex-partners—it was fun while it lasted, but you can never go back. Things are never as good as the second time around, he said, and that short-lived comfort of returning to what you know is replaced by long-term dislike as previously unnoticed or unacknowledged flaws stampede you.

When I put this to some friends via those handy crowd-sourcing tools called text messages and Facebook, the response was varied. One friend was adamant that he’d never re-read a book, but the rest sat somewhere in the middle.

Two friends said they went back to books in preparation for future releases in a series: if you like, a re-read refresher. One (also named Fiona) said she re-read books if they were so good that she read them ‘too quickly’ the first time around, before acknowledging that her busy life meant that the books needed to be pretty special in order for her to do so.

Mardi said that ‘the really good ones are worth a second going over’, before adding: ‘Now I’m married, I only apply that rule to books!’ For other friends, like Amber, the quality of the book made the difference: ‘Lit fic ones where the prose is just gorgeous are long-term relationships. Mysteries or thrillers are one-night stands: once you know whodunit, it’s over.’

Others said that they will re-read books if a long, long time has passed, which arguably renders the book brand, spanking new. Such revisits help you ‘discover things you missed the first time around’, but can be, as Carody noted, a double-edged sword: ‘When I re-read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, it wasn’t as awesome as I remembered it being, which made me sad.’

The Catcher In The RyeShe has, she says, ‘been meaning to re-read The Catcher in the Rye for, oh, ten years’, but wonders whether she will still love Holden Caulfield, ‘Or will I now want to punch him in the face to stop his adolescent whining?’

I’m facing similar issues myself, having noticed that my copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was missing from my shelf. No one owned up, much less returned it, and my brother is again under suspicion. I then noticed that The Secret History is now available for less that $10 as a Penguin Modern Classic, which meant I had to replace it. It’s now sitting on my shelf, orange spine uncracked.

I overwhelmingly want to re-read The Secret History, although in truth my memory of the book is fairly hazy—something about students at a college studying Latin, a murder, and a character called Bunny—and I’m terrified that Tartt’s masterpiece won’t stand up the second time around. I mean, I already suffered trying to read the book she produced through her second book syndrome: The Little Friend. I’m not sure what state I’d be in if her first book too was revealed to be a clunker.

The Little FriendMy friend Katy took the ex-partner analogy to a new (and potentially unpublishable in this family forum) level, saying that there are too many fish in the sea and that life is too short to go back. But she did make me think about experiencing books in a different format. She says she wouldn’t re-read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but she did listen to them as audio books after she finished the paperbacks. I guess it’s not dissimilar to seeing the book turned into a film and, as I’ve previously noted, I’m fairly ok with that.

So should I be a re-reader? Or should I cut all ties to a book, as with an ex, once it’s over? I’m honestly still undecided. Perhaps revisiting The Secret History will help me make up my mind…