menu Language Is A Virus

Breaking Her Silence

by Malcolm Jones, Newsweek, October 21, 2002
Ten years ago Donna Tartt turned the literary world on its ear with her best seller, 'The Secret History.' Now she's getting ready to do it again. Say hello to 'The Little Friend'.
I could start with an anecdote, a revealing vignette, say, set in a Japanese teahouse in Manhattan where I met Donna Tartt for an interview (it tickles her that in this teahouse you can get green tea, the beverage at the heart of Japan's ritualistic tea ceremony, in a go cup).

Or I could talk about the frenzy of chatter filling up the shrinelike Web sites where her fans speculate endlessly about what she's been up to since her acclaimed, best-selling debut novel, "The Secret History," appeared 10 years ago ("My favorite rumor," she says with a giggle, "was that I'd bought an entire island, like Dr. No"). Or I could talk about the reception her new novel, "The Little Friend," received when it was published in the Netherlands last month (most salient fact: it sold 150,000 copies in one week).

It's tempting to just go on telling stories about Tartt, because she's a character—Mississippi bred, Bennington educated, a snappy dresser with an eccentric streak (she won't talk about her private life, won't even say if she's married: "As Mississippi John Hurt put it, 'Ain't nobody's business but my own' "). More important, she became a literary superstar on the basis of a single novel. She published "The Secret History" when she was 28 (the legendary editor and writer Willie Morris told her "I think you're a genius" when he met her at Ole Miss; she was still a teenager). "The Secret History" was the talk of the literary world, with critics competing to pile on superlatives. The Gothic tale of five New England college students involved in two murders, the book sold more than a million copies. But after that, there was not another word from Tartt, no new novel, year after year after year. And so the rumors started afresh. She was blocked. "The Secret History" was really the work of a boyfriend. And on and on.

But now there is a book, so enough already with the rumors. Because what you really want to know is, how good is it? In fact, "The Little Friend" is a terrific story—a much better book than "The Secret History." It's got a main character, a 12-year-old girl named Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, who ranks up there with Huck Finn, Miss Havisham, Quentin Compson and Philip Marlowe, fictional creations who don't seem in the least fictional. I read this novel a month ago, and since then I have gone back over —and over to keep company with Harriet. She is not a particularly nice kid ("Harriet," the book tells us when she is introduced 26 pages into the story, "was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart"), but she seems as real to me as my own children.

In the book's opening pages, Harriet's 9-year-old brother, Robin, is found dead, hanging from a tree in the Dufresnes yard on Mother's Day. At the time, Harriet is only a baby. Twelve years later she sets out to find his murderer. Her search occupies the rest of the book, and along the way we meet her loony mother, her dotty great-aunts, her magisterial grandmother and a clan of drug-dealing white trash who would scare anyone but Harriet halfway into the next county. The 38-year-old author etches each of these characters with indelible assurance. Any one of them could single-handedly dominate most novels. But Harriet outshines them all.

So the first thing I wanted to know when we met was just how much of Tartt was in Harriet. "Not as much as you might think," she replies. Yes, both Harriet and Tartt grew up in small Mississippi towns in the '70s. Both were loners, voracious readers with few playmates and surrounded by aging relatives. "Harriet is actually more a state of mind, a sort of no-nonsense trait that runs in my mother's side of the family. My great-grandfather used to talk about his own grandmother like that, and she must have been born in the 1820s or 1830s." And frankly, Tartt is much nicer, and a lot funnier, than the grimly determined little girl in this novel. You can't imagine Donna Tartt trying to kill anyone, certainly not with a cobra.

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