By Carolyn Quimby | @CarolynQuimby, @WornBookSmell
Donna Tartt was one of the biggest breakout literary stars of 2014 with the publishing of her mammoth, Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, The Goldfinch. However, Tartt is no stranger to the literary world–in fact, she’s been publishing books since 1992. Her first novel, The Secret History, immediately became a bestseller.
Described as a “Whydunit” rather than a classic “whodunit,” The Secret History follows six college students studying Classics at Hampden College, a small, elite college in Vermont. Taught and guided by their eccentric professor, the students (Richard, Henry, Charles, Camilla, Francis and Bunny) find themselves on the border of reality and what lies beyond–a space where they find the depths of human greed, brutality, and evil. Narrated by Richard, six years after his time at Hampden College, the novel follows the mundane and morally-reprehensible lives of him and his five fellow classmates. When they are involved in a tragedy concerning on of their own, we watch their friendships and lives unravel.
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Perhaps my biggest problem with the book is it’s pacing. My edition clocked in at 559 pages and it took me just over 3 weeks to read–an unheard of time for me to spend on a book of this length. The Secret History could have (and should have) been 150 pages shorter. The novel begins with the climax, moves to exposition from Richard, and then to the chronological beginning of the novel.
When the book starts, the what has been revealed: Bunny has been murdered by his friends. Now the question is why? Why would six college students murder their friend and classmate? The journey to answer that question is a riveting one, but far, far too long. Starting the novel with the climax leaves the reader at the edge of a cliff (a fitting metaphor considering how Bunny dies), but Tartt lets us dangle through too many mundane pages of the characters drinking and smoking and nursing hangovers. The major plot points were good, but the book was not as tight as it could have been. There were more than a few scenes that added little to the tension, mystery, and drama.
Another thing I disliked was the way the characters seemed to fade and blend and overlap–it became hard to distinguish who was who at points because they were all too blase and cool for their own good. There was not one part of me that felt compassion for any of the remaining group. At the start of the second half of the novel, Richard goes as far to say that he doesn’t believe himself to be “an evil person” nor does he believe that any of his friends were “bad” despite doing a “terrible” thing. He lists a few reasons why they possibly did it (“chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry’s, too much Greek prose composition”), but does not get to the root of the problem–they were all morally bankrupt and too cowardly to stand up to their horrifyng leader.
Also, Julian barely guided them as the book’s blurb would like you to believe–he was nothing more than an odd professor whom lived more in the realm of Greek mythology than reality, but he was not some sort of messiah (though he was like a father to Henry). Tartt through Richard, her narrator, ascribes far too much importance and significance to Julian, Henry, and the rest of the Classics students. When in reality, they are nothing more than privileged, fairly intelligent 20-somethings. Though I suppose that’s like most people and things–they seem a lot more important from far away than they are up close.
- making Bunny unlikable and greedy enough to provoke murderous feelings within the reader (and then the immediate guilt/shame that comes with wishing murder on someone who is “in the right” morally)
- ensuring the reader understood that Henry was a manipulative sociopath
- weaving the perfect amount of Latin and Greek mythology into the book
- creating such a beautiful sleepy, snowy town and lively college campus
Also, Tartt’s prose is wonderful and full of life, which made me like this novel far more than I would have in another writer’s hands. Her ruminations on death and beauty and life were more than enjoyable–they were borderline mystical, which I loved. Her descriptions of nature were also steeped in a dreamy beauty.
“I suppose at one time in my life, I might have had any number of stories, but no there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
“The sky was blue, the air warm and windless, and the sun beamed on the muddy ground with all the sweet impatience of June.”
“A thin ray of sun struck the prisms of a candelabrum on the mantelpiece, throwing brilliant, trembling shards of light that were distorted by the slant of the dormer walls.”
“I think about the first time I ever saw a birch tree; about the last time I saw Julian; about the first sentence I ever learned in Greek. Khalepa ta kala. Beauty is harsh.”
Beauty is harsh, and Tartt has created a novel full of harsh endings for horrible characters. This review may also seem harsh, but I actually enjoyed The Secret History quite a bit. It stirred strong feelings in me–hatred for Henry, pity/annoyance for Bunny, exasperation with Richard, wonder at the beauty of Tartt’s prose–and that’s what good literature does. It forces you to react, not always in the ways you expect or want, but that’s part of the journey–to trust the author to take you and transport you and leave you changed (or stirred, at the very least). The novel was fun in the way that murder mysteries (or reverse-mysteries) are, and cerebral in a way that great literary fiction is. The Secret History won’t ever be one of my favorite books nor do I see myself rereading it, but I’m glad I read it and I would be more than willing to take another literary journey with Donna Tartt.