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Donna Tartt Book Reviews

Reviews of The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Reviews of The Little Friend

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Reviews of The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Short Reviews of The Little Friend

Gorgeous, fluent, visual ... Harriet is one of the most engaging and rounded characters you are liely to find.

You will rarely read better ... because of Tartt's mastery of suspense, this book will grip readers all the way through to its bitter end.

In a literary age of diet and dearth, Tartt invites us to feast.
The Times

Tartt is interested in everyone and everything; that is what makes nearly all her characters live off the page ... gorgeous, fluent, visual; erudite but never distracting.
Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

Tartt has lost none of the considerable gifts she displayed in her first novel; she is one of the most mesmerizing writers of her generation.

Dense and richly textured, it is a beautifully observed study of class, race and family in a small Southern town ... A mesmerising portrait of the singular and complex character of its 12-year-old heroine.

In a literary age of diet and dearth, Tartt invites us to feast ... The opening tragedy strikes a note of rich, flamboyant Southern Gothic that resonates throughout.
Jane Shilling's Book of the Year, Sunday Telegraph

Tartt's novel sets an elegant, implacable trap for a reader's consciousness, from which it is impossible to escape until the final sentence.
The Times

Twelve-year-old Harriet, the book's heroine, is launched into adventure, hellbent on discovering who murdered her brother when she was a baby. In the interplay between Harriet's pernickety old aunts and the demonic Farish Ratliff, a paranoid, piratical speed dealer, we see Tartt's best writing: whip-smart, bold and engaging. Its thrusts towards resolution are met by ambiguity, and it may disappoint those hungry for the neat solution of the traditional murder mystery; yet Tartt has quite brilliantly confounded genre expectations and delivered a Bildungsroman of great sophistication.
Evening Standard

This is great Southern Gothic at its most voluptuous.
Mail on Sunday

The wait has been well worthwhile ... the central figure of Tartt's magnificent second novel is Harriet, a precocious prepubescent girl growing up in the Deep South in an extended matriarchal household. She becomes convinced the death of her older brother many years before was a case of murder and, with the aid of a playmate, plans to wreak her revenge. The Little Friend has everything you could possibly want in a novel: vivid characterisation, brilliant observation, sly wit and an ingenious, gripping plot.

"Another high point was Donna Tartt's signing of 'The Little Friend.' She is an incredible author with such a mysterious persona that we could not wait to meet her. The bookstore was packed. When she was whisked to the podium, the room fell silent. No one moved. No one breathed. Donna said hello to everyone and then began to read the prologue to her novel. We were all enraptured by her and thought that hearing her read this story that we loved so much was heaven on Earth. How could it get any better? Well, I'll tell you.

"When she got to the part in the book where Ida Rhew is in the kitchen listening to the gospel station on the radio, Donna began to sing the song. Her voice was beautiful and clear and sweet. We were all stunned. It was so wonderful! It was a moment we will never forget."
A Most Eventful 2003 by Susan Larson, The Times-Picayune, December 28, 2003

Donna Tartt nominated for a Nebbie British Book Award
Despite her towering literary reputation, Donna Tartt is physically very small. As a baby, she was so tiny that her mother dressed her in doll's clothes. A decade after her first novel, The Secret History, Mississippi-born Tartt has delivered her eagerly awaited second, The Little Friend, (Bloomsbury £16.99), which conjures up the ambience of her Southern upbringing. She was born in 1963 and attended the University of Mississippi from where she transferred to Bennington College in Vermont. She spends most of her time at home in Virginia, but has travelled extensively in Nepal, Japan, Africa and India. The Secret History was a hugely successful fiction debut. Doubtless that made writing her second a daunting task, but Tartt has produced a richly beguiling follow-up. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend pivots on the events of Mother's Day, when nine-year-old Robin Cleves was found hanged in his own back garden. Eleven years later, his death remains unsolved - which is why Harriet, now 12 and so unable to remember anything about her brother or his death, sets out to find the killer and exact her revenge. It's a powerful and involving southern gothic novel that has been well worth waiting for. Tartt's skill lies in rich evocations of scenes, characters and moods that fix themselves in the mind. The apparent dreaminess of her prose masks a razor edge, like a well-honed dagger concealed in velvet.
About the authors, British Book Awards, Publishing News UK

Donna Tartt excels at turning places of ordinary privilege into places tinged by anxiety and death. In her first novel, The Secret History, a small liberal arts college in New England becomes the playground for a dangerous, elite clique of scholars; in her next novel, The Little Friend, Mother's Day in a small Mississippi town serves as the backdrop for the discovery of a nine-year-old boy's hanging.
Though she has written several short stories and essays for magazines such as Harper's and the Oxford American, little has been seen of Tartt since the publicity blitz that accompanied The Secret History's publication in 1992. The book became a bestseller, and critics were reservedly enthusiastic.

Tartt had taken on a lot in The Secret History. It was partly a thriller, partly a critique of academe, and was densely packed with literary references from both classical Greek and contemporary literature. Some thought Tartt had bitten off more than she could chew, but she still earned praise for her sheer thematic ambition and her ability to create atmosphere and a driving pace. Ultimately, the book was enough to establish the Mississippi writer as a talent worth watching, and to inspire a handful of devotional web sites that dutifully enumerated her few-and-far-between publications.

The Tartt short stories that have since appeared in magazines show a glimpse of the talent that wowed professors at University of Mississippi — a Christmas pageant goes criminally awry, a former child star goes on what he considers a doomed visit to a hospitalized child — and her essays further reveal her skewed perspective. Finally, in 2002 and a decade after the debut that made her a sensation, Tartt published The Little Friend. The premise, a 12-year-old girl's effort to avenge the murder of her older brother, shows that Tartt has not shied away from her exploration of the darknesses that lie underneath seemingly harmless facades.
by Christina Nunez, Meet the Writers - Barnes & Noble

Missing in Action
by Jared Paul Stern, Detour Magazine, May 1999
Donna Tartt doesn't have time to talk. She's too busy writing. But where's the evidence? It's been seven years since her first novel, The Secret History, became one of those rare best-sellers that actually has literary merit - and naught but a couple of flaccid short stories have dribbled out since. Her cautionary tale of highbrow murder set in the dead of winter against the thinly disguised backdrop of Vermont's exclusive Bennington College (where Tartt is an alum), charmed crusty book critics, while drawing in the John Grisham set. Since then, though, the author seems to have fallen off the literary map.

There were rumors of exorbitant payouts ($450,000 for the book itself, and another $500,000 for paperback rights), and even more money from the sale of the movie rights to the late Alan J. Pakula, with Shine director Scott Hicks now signed on to direct (the project's in indefinite development). There are tales of Tartt holed up on a tropical island (she bought it with the proceeds, the story goes), secluding herself to bang the next one out.

The thirty-something author made the news in October of 1997, when 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi, opened fire on his classmates with a hunting rifle, killing two and wounding seven. When police arrested six of Woodman's friends and fellow Latin and philosophy enthusiasts on murder conspiracy charges, Time magazine reported that they may have been influenced by The Secret History. Smartly, Tartt declined comment.

Meanwhile, the months were turning into years, her fans waited, and her agent, the legendary Amanda "Binky" Urban, deflected inquiries -- and is, in fact, still deflecting. "Donna Tartt is finishing her novel now -- she's thick into it, and I don't think this is the time to stop and give an interview," Urban chided.

In a recent interview, Tartt's old schoolmate, Bret Easton Ellis, told the Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune that his colleague has been living, as he put it, "on a plantation in Virginia" with goats, sheep, and "a very young boyfriend." "I must have been drunk when I said that," Ellis now tells this magazine. "Once she moved out of New York, we didn't stay in such close contact. I don't have a clue what the book's about."

Next stop: Chip Kidd, the tweedy graphic designer who created The Secret History's enticing book jacket. "I really haven't been in touch with her that much," Kidd says. "I've seen her out at the occasional publishing party. I think the last place was at one of Bret's Christmas bashes. I don't know what she's up to, and I don't know what the book's about. But I'd love to be able to design it."

The case of the missing Tartt was falling to pieces.

"I understand Donna's not really interested in your story," Gary Fisketjon, who edited The Secret History for Knopf, brusquely informed us by telephone, suggesting that agent Urban had set off alarms to all inquiries. "She's busy working on her book." When pressed he gruffly added, "I can't tell you anything about it yet. We're not publishing anything right now, and we haven't scheduled it. I hate to speculate on things this far in advance."

Finally, we got a tip from one reliable intimate of Tartt's. The gist of the double-secret next novel? Set in the South, where the author originally hails from, it's the story of a young girl whose older brother commits suicide. When the girl grows up, she investigates the circumstances, and discovers there is more to his tragic death than meets the eye. Or so we're told. Cautioned our source: "I heard that years ago, though. It may have changed completely since then." Perhaps we, like so many other fans, are just being impatient. After all, it took Tartt eight years to write The Secret History. Which means that she could be right on schedule.|Set in the South, where the author originally hails from, it's the story of a young girl whose older brother commits suicide. When the girl grows up, she investigates the circumstances, and discovers there is more to his tragic death than meets the eye.

Short Reviews of The Secret History

Book-of-the-Month Club Selection
Boston Globe

Tartt's voice is unlike that of any of her contemporaries. Her beautiful language, intricate plotting, fascinating characters, and intellectual energy make her debut by far the most interesting work yet from her generation.

The great pleasure of the novel is the wonderful complexity and the remarkable skill with which this first novelist spins the tale. And a gruesome tale it is... A great, dense, disturbing story, wonderfully told.

Donna Tartt has a real shot at becoming her generation's Edgar Allan Poe... The Secret History pulses like a telltale heart on steroids.
Houston Chronicle

One of the best American college novels to come along since John Knowles's A Seperate Peace...
Imagine a literary gumbo with Dostoevski and Ruth Rendell for stock ingredients and Evelyn Waugh, Dickens, G.B. Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, and Meyer Levin's 1956 novel Compulsion added for seasoning, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the content and flavor of The Secret History... Immensely entertaining.
Jay McInerney

The Secret History implicates the reader in a conspiracy which begins in bucolic enchantment and ends exactly where it must - though a less gifted or fearless writer would never have been able to imagine such a rich skein of consequence, Donna Tartt has written a mesmerizing and powerful novel.
John Grisham

A beautifully written story, well-told, funny, sad, scary, and impossible to leave alone until I finished... What a debut!
Library Journal - Charles Michaud

This well-written first novel attempts to be several things: a psychological suspense thriller, a satire of collegiate mores and popular culture, and a philosophical bildungsroman.
Supposedly brilliant students at a posh Vermont school (Bennington in thin disguise) are involved in two murders, one supposedly accidental and one deliberate.
The book's many allusions, both literary and classical (the students are all classics majors studying with a professor described as both a genius and a deity) fail to provide the deeper resonance
of such works as Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
Ultimately, it works best as a psychological thriller.
Expect prepublication hype to generate interest in this book and buy accordingly.
Miami Herald

Donna Tartt is clearly a gifted writer...
The cadence of her sentences, the authority with which she shaped 500-plus pages of an erudite page-turner indicate she has the ability to leave her literary contemporaries standing in the road...
The decision to murder has about it the inevitability of classical Greek tragedy.
New Republic - Alexander Star

This is an elaborately conceived and artistically ambitious thriller that turns not on the quest for tenure or pills, but on such matters as 'sin unpunished, innocence destroyed, and evil passing itself as good.' ... Tartt records the aftereffects of unpunished crime with great skill. But her efforts to transform a chronicle of suspense into a study in sensibility are less successful.
Dostoyevskian turmoil does not relocate easily to contemporary Vermont, and the stage-props of ancient Greece don't make the trip any smoother...
Tartt offers the aroma of decadence, not its anatomy; stylish intimations of misbehavior, not visions of hell.
She leaves her hero hanging out at the abyss, admiring his new sneakers.
New York Newsday

A thinking-person's thriller...
Think of Lord of the Flies, then The Rules of Attraction...
The Secret History combines a bit of both - the unmistakable whiff of evil from William Golding's classis and the mad recklessness of privileged youth from Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the '80s...
As stony and chilling as any Greek tragedian ever plumbed.
New York Times

Powerful...Enthralling...A ferociously well-paced entertainment.
New York Times Book Review - Andrew Rosenheim

This is a work of occasionally irritating pretension that is mostly redeemed by its simple virtue as a gripping read...
Seemingly determined to upset the well-established conventions of the academic novel...
Ms. Tartt has nonetheless managed to retain the best features of the genre.
Foremost among them is her skillful investigation of the chasm between academe's supposed ideals and the vagaries of its actual behavior...
{The novel} is at its best when it keeps its narrative feet firmly planted on the stage floor of its characters' lives.
Where it parts company with even the best of its campus colleagues is in the clever evolution of its first-person telling, its many magnificent pages of description and its refusal to let the parochial environs of its setting limit the exploration of its characters.
New York Times Notable Book

New York Times

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable.
As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another...a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life...and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning....

The pages beg to be turned...
Tells you whodunit on the first page and makes you read on hungrily to discover the how and why.
Philadelphia Inquirer

A long tale of friendship, arrogance, and murder knit together with the finesse that many writers will never have...
Her writing bewitches us...
The Secret History is a wonderfully beguiling book, a journey backward to the fierce and heady friendships of our school days, when all of us believed in our power to conjure up divinity and to be forgiven any sin.
Time - Martha Duffy

What Donna Tartt has attempted - and largely brought off - is a challenging combination of a mystery..., an exploration of evil, both banal and bizarre, and a generous slice of the world as seen by the author, a brainy graduate of Bennington who has mastered Greek and English literature and doesn't care who knows it. It all adds up to confidence verging on bravura.

A challenging combination of mystery, an exploration of evil, both banal and bizarre, and a generous slice of the world as seen by the author...
A smart, craftsman-like, viscerally compelling novel.
Village Voice

An accomplished psychological killer... Absolutely chilling... Tartt has a stunning command of the lyrical.
Virginian-Pilot & Ledger-Star

The Secret History is a grand read - an artful blend of intelligence, entertainment, and suspense that quickens the pulse.

Beautifully written, suspenseful from start to finish.
Washington Post Book World

Donna Tartt has invested this simple and suspenseful plot with a considerable amount of atmosphere and philosophical significance...
She's a very good writer indeed.

Tartt's Sweet Deal
by Anita LeClerc and Joseph Hooper, Esquire, September 1992

When Donna Tartt arrived at Bennington College, she soon realized that her native Mississippi had failed to prepare her for certain facts of northern undergraduate life. "I had never heard of minimalism," she says. On the evidence of her first I novel (eight years in I the making), she's resisted any new tricks. The fleshy, well-formed sentences in The Secret History are closer in feel to the Victorian novelists she grew up on than to present-day mentor Bret Easton Ellis. Lucky for her. Tartt received a $450,000 advance from Knopf, movie deals are steeping, and all of a sudden it seems that no star treatment is too much for an unknown writer who can really write. Without the art, The Secret History might be a little hard to swallow, this five hundred-page tale about a bunch of Benningtonesque classics majors who get mixed up in a homegrown Dionysian ecstasy cult that turns inadvertently murderous. Twice. Passion, then cover-up. "I've been interested in murder ever since I was a girl," the Twenty-eight-year-old Tartt says sweetly. It's no small achievement on Tartt's part that the reader feels, for a guilty second or two, the utter reasonableness of the transgression. "I think everyone has a moment when they could do it," she says.

More Reviews

Murder Midst the Ferns
by Martha Duffy
August 31, 1992

Anatomy of a Hype
by Laura Shapiro and Ray Sawhill
September 7, 1992

Groves of Academe Shed Gold and Yawns
by Lee Lescaze
Wall Street Journal
September 9, 1992

Beyond Good and Evil
by Amanda Vail
Book World | The Washington Post
September 13, 1992

Dead Guy on Campus
by Andrew Rosenheim
New York Times Book Review
September 13, 1992

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
by Madison Smartt Bell
Baltimore Sun
September 27, 1992

Forbidden and Gothic
by Lacey Fosburgh
September 1992

Review of The Secret History
by Nisid Hajari
September 1992

Review of The Secret History
by Nancy Wood
October 12, 1992

Less Than Hero
by Alexander Star
The New Republic
October 19, 1992

The Wrong Stuff
by James Saynor
The Observer
October 25, 1992

Panpipes and Preppies
by Brooke Allen
The New Criterion
October 1992

The Glamour of Glamour
by James Wood
London Review of Books
December 19, 1992

Review of The Secret History
by G. Krist
Hudson Review
Spring 1993

Review of The Secret History
by P.K. Bell
Partisan Review
Winter 1993

Missing In Action: Donna Tartt's Secret History
by Jared Paul Stern
Detour Magazine
May 1999

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