Donna Tartt – The Secret History
Length: 503 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction / Psychological Thriller
Started: 30 July 2010
Finished: 07 August 2010
Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I can’t remember where/from whom I first heard about it, but as embarrassing as it is, what really made me want it was one of Jacob’s mentioning it in one of his recaps of True Blood on Television Without Pity.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 December 2009.
Think Classics geeks are
too bookish to commit a
murder? Think again.
Summary: When Richard Papen transferred to the tiny Hampden College in rural Vermont his junior year, he was expecting something different from his bland suburban Californian life, but he didn’t quite realize how different things would be. He falls in with a group of five other students, Greek scholars under the exclusive tutelage of a reclusive Classics professor. The five of them are worldly, wealthy, and disaffected towards everything except Ancient Greece – and possibly each other. But, although they guardedly let Richard into their group, they five of them are bound together by a terrible secret – one which Richard learns too late to prevent the murder of one of their number.
Review: I spent the first quarter of this book angry, the second quarter intrigued, the third anticipatory, and the fourth annoyed.
To explain: This book came with some very high expectations. Lots of people I know had loved it. It’s got high ratings and glowing reviews. It gets referenced over and over in varying contexts, including on varying “must-read modern fiction” lists. So as I started reading, I was expecting to love it. And, within a very few pages, I was very, very angry.
I wasn’t angry at The Secret History, however. I was angry at Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I read STiCP several years ago, and couldn’t stand it. (As a note, STiCP was the first review I posted on this site, and was actually part of the impetus for starting a blog – I needed more space to bloviate about how much it annoyed me, and was hoping to find some kindred spirits.) Unfortunately, the two novels are extremely similar in characters and in plot: small rural college, group of eccentric and pretentious students that gravitate around a mysterious professor, a newcomer narrator who is only eventually let into the inner echelon, the murder of one of their group, etc. So, I was mad at STiCP not only for blatantly ripping off The Secret History, but also for tainting by association a novel that I otherwise might have really enjoyed.
As I got past the first hundred pages or so, that feeling passed. The writing in The Secret History was a lot more readable and a lot less obnoxiously pretentious, plus the author had started dropping all sorts of hints about the dark secrets that led up to Bunny’s murder, and I was captivated, wanting to know more.
By the time we actually get around to the murder, however, I was a little bit confused – the dark secrets were there in the background, but were never really explored or used to full effect, and the actual murder was a lot more banal than I was expecting. Still, that was only halfway through the book. I’ve read plenty of books where the author introduces something new late in the game – a new twist, a new angle, something – that completely changes the course of the book and makes you want to start over and re-read the whole thing. As the characters begin slipping deeper and deeper into guilty paranoia, I kept waiting for that twist to happen. “People love this book,” I kept telling myself. “Sooner or later, that new element is going to be introduced that is going to bring the whole thing together and turn it on its head, and then you’re going to love it too.” I don’t mind a book that’s a slow read, as long as it’s eventually building to something, and I was willing to stick it out.
But unfortunately for me, that twist never came. The book just went on as it had been, with the characters having nothing to do other than get drunk, go slowly stir-crazy with paranoia, be pretentious, be pretentiously drunk, keep secrets from each other, and be hungover; and as such there wasn’t a whole lot to catch my interest. As a psychological sketch of people falling apart in the aftermath of such a crime, it’s masterfully done, and Tartt’s writing is wonderful at catching and evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere, but I just felt like there was never enough actually happening to properly call it a thriller. Plus, to make matters worse, by the end of the book, I was thoroughly repulsed by every single one of the characters, which may have been part of Tartt’s point, but which also made it hard for me to care whether or not they got away with it in the end. 3 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Eh. It’s well-written, and if slow, moody, psychological character pieces are your cup of tea, than I’d definitely give it a go. I was just expecting something very different from what it delivered, and while there were a number of interesting and promising elements, I felt like they were mostly ignored in favor of spending more time doing character studies of characters I didn’t care for.
First Line: The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 49: ““You want to know what Classics are?” said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. “I’ll tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.” A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.” – characterized by or full of aphorisms, terse pithy sayings, or axioms, with the added implication of moralizing; of, pertaining to, or noting a writer of aphorisms, esp. any of certain Greek poets.
- p. 180: ““We could play bezique, or euchre if you’d rather,” he said, the blue and gold dissolving from his hands in a blur.” – a game resembling pinochle, originally played with 64 cards and now more commonly with 128 cards and, sometimes, 192 or 256 cards.
- p. 203: “Even in the happiest times he’d made fun of my California accent, my secondhand overcoat and my room barren of tasteful bibelots, but in such an ingenious way I couldn't possibly do anything but laugh.” – a small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity.
- p. 249: “This from the latest serial killer – destined for the chair, they say – who, with incarnadine axe, recently dispatched half a dozen registered nurses in Texas.” – blood-red; crimson.
- p. 325: “At home in bed, in my private abyss of longing, the scenes I dreamed of always began like this: drowsy drunken hour, the two of us alone, scenarios in which invariably she would brush against me as if by chance, or lean conveniently close, cheek touching mine, to point out a passage in a book; opportunities which I would seize, gently but manfully, as exordium to more violent pleasures.” – the beginning of anything.
- p. 343: “A freshman girl attempted suicide – for entirely unrelated reasons – by eating poison berries from a nandina bush outside the Music Building, but somehow this was all tied in with the general hysteria.” – a Chinese and Japanese evergreen shrub, Nandina domestica, of the barberry family, having pinnate leaves and bright red berries, cultivated as an ornamental.
- p. 366: “There was a tiny dressing room off the master bedroom, and a black lacquer vanity with lots of little compartments and a tiny key, and inside one of the compartments was a ballotin of Godiva chocolates and a neat, well-tended collection of candy-colored pills.” – a deep decorative rectangular cardboard box with overhanging edges used for packaging chocolate candies
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