Author: Donna Tartt
Genre: Fiction | Contemporary | Mystery
Synopsis: The setting is Alexandria, Mississippi, where one Mother’s Day a little boy named Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found hanging from a tree in his parents’ yard. Twelve years later Robin’s murder is still unsolved and his family remains devastated. So it is that Robin’s sister Harriet – unnervingly bright, insufferably determined, and unduly influenced by the fiction of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson–sets out to unmask his killer. Aided only by her worshipful friend Hely, Harriet crosses her town’s rigid lines of race and caste and burrows deep into her family’s history of loss.
Would I recommend? Not particularly, but I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it either.
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Tartt is one of those authors I just can’t get enough of. If I could be in love with a person’s writing, I would be in love with Tartt’s. I would marry her writing faster than you could say “pumpernickle.” She is the queen of setting up a tangible atmosphere. Nobody does characterization better than she does. And she is one of the best authors out there, without a doubt. So why have I given two out of three of her books mediocre ratings if she’s that good? Well, because even though The Little Friend and the Goldfinch are fabulous books, they simply do not live up to the Secret History. And I know that Tartt can do so much better.
The book follows Harriet Dufresnes, a girl of twelve extremely smart for her age, a girl who is hell-bent on solving the mystery of who killed her older brother twelve years ago, who was found hanging in the family home’s backyard on a fateful Mother’s Day afternoon. Harriet doesn’t remember much about her older brother, except that everybody loved him. With very little clues and a devoted best friend, Harriet spends one summer trying to do what the police could not: unmask her brother’s killer.
Tartt explores some very real themes in this novel. I’ve never been into southern fiction, but Tartt weaves in complex themes like racism and classism within the story, and she explores these themes with grace. She isn’t soft about it, because racism and classism are very real things, very brutal things, and Tartt tells them like they are. They can be hard to read about, but they’re also very important, and I commend Tartt for dealing with them the way she does.
I’m not going to beat about the bush here. I went into this expecting a terrifying, heart-breaking mystery that was going to leave me shocked by the end. If you’re planning on reading this book, there’s something you should know: the mystery never gets solved. I’m telling you this because you should know what you’re going into. You won’t get a shocking ending or a satisfying resolve, so don’t expect that going into this. I did, and by the turn of the last page, I was supremely pissed off.
So if the mystery never gets solved, what the hell is this book about? I would say this is a book about Harriet, period. Nothing really happens throughout. It’s extremely slow albeit very atmospheric. There is no action until the last hundred pages. It’s a lazy read, something psychological. It’s extremely long; the paperback is 624 pages of tiny, tiny font. Pair that with nothing really happening, and you might be in for a snooze-fest. I mean, it took me over two months to get through it while I flew through both of Tartt’s other books.
But there’s something that makes this book worth reading, and that is the writing and the characters.
Tartt excels when it comes to characterization. I haven’t read characters that feel as real as hers do. She gives them all defining characteristics, distinct personalities. All of them have redeeming qualities, all of them have flaws. It’s really interesting how Tartt writes characters who aren’t very likable, but you still understand where they’re coming from. Even the minor characters in her novels are given such attention– from the color of their eyes to how they move their fingers while nervous, everything is clear and I love that.
Harriet is such a complex character. She’s obviously gone through something traumatic in her childhood, but I loved how Tartt built up her character ON that traumatic experience, rather than focusing on the experience itself. You would expect this book to be mainly about the mystery, but it’s not. It’s about Harriet through and through. She’s cunning, and wickedly intelligent. She’s determined beyond measure. I loved her relationship with her maid, Ida, and her relationship with Hely.
If you’re more of a character-driven person than a plot-driven one, I would suggest reading this book. If you’re a writer who’s interested in how to build characters and develop them, this would be great study material. Because even though this book lacked a cohesive plot, it had on-point characterization. By the turn of the last page, I felt like Harriet and Hely were two of my best friends. I knew them inside and out.
I can worship Donna Tartt for writing the way she does. I don’t know how she does it. If it was ANY other author, I would have given this book up as soon as the winding descriptions and details started, but not her. Her writing is like a drug to me. I keep coming back for more. She writes about nothing, and it’s fascinating how she does it. She can spend two pages describing a freaking lily, and I would absolutely love how she does it because she puts such a different twist to it. The way this lady builds up atmosphere is astounding. Every time I’m reading her books, I feel like I’m part of the novel. In this one, I felt like I was beside Harriet and Hely while they were lounging lazily under the warm sun, or trudging through the fields full of snakes. I’ve never been to the south, but I felt like the setting was familiar while reading this book, which is some accomplishment. And I’m sure if I were to read this book again, I’d be on the lookout myself to solve the mystery, because I’m sure that Tartt – like the writer she is – left a trail of clues for her readers to pick up on. Because it’s not like her to leave something hanging.
If my review hasn’t convinced you to read this book, I don’t blame you. But if this review hasn’t convinced you to pick up ANY of Tartt’s books, I have failed as a reviewer. If I HAVE convinced you, I would suggest starting with the Secret History, because that is Tartt at her absolute finest.
P.S: Sorry for the ridiculously wrong review. I just had a lot to say.