Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: The Secret History

The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Alfred A. Knopf 1992
524 pages
From the library

The Secret History is the story of Richard, who applies to Hampden College on a whim, determined to leave his small Californian town. He is invited into the exclusive circle of classics students taught by Professor Julian Morrow. His fellow students include twins Charles and Camilla, Henry, Francis, and Bunny. He soon discovers that his fellow students are not just drinking wine and discussing Plato. They have a dark secret and ask Richard to help them cover it up.

My main problem with this book was its length. It’s hard to have a lot of tension involving a murder in almost 600 pages. The entire plot of the murder seemed far-fetched to me. {Warning - spoilers ahead} A group of well-read, intelligent students attempt to reach a state of bliss a la Dionysus and they kill someone in the process? I knew a lot of crazy college kids who were committed to their particular topics of study, but I can't fathom any of them attempting something like this. 

Despite a lack of tension, the book is truly atmospheric. Tartt excels at creating the world of a small liberal arts college, the beauty of a walk in the woods, and the majesty of a country estate. There are also some really lovely moments where Richard realizes the impermanence and beauty of those moments in college when you find people who understand you and love you as you are. 

“But even that day, there on the porch, with Charles behind me and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eye, and yet too beautiful to believe.

It was getting dark; soon it would be time for dinner. I finished my drink in a swallow. The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant – the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.”

As I read, I was interested in what was happening but never really invested in the characters. There are several moments when it is difficult to differentiate between Francis and Henry and all of the characters are far removed from reality. With the exception of Richard, who is our window into their world, each one of them truly believes they are superior because of their wealth and intelligence. 

This lack of empathy for the characters is problematic. I rather believe that when a character dies in a book, you are supposed to feel something. That was not the case here. This is advertised as a psychological story, exploring questions about what drives people to commit awful crimes and what effects actions like these have on their perpetrators. Instead, I found myself floored at the lack of reaction. It wasn't so much a reaction to what they had done, but rather the effect it might have on them should they be caught. Such callous selfishness is hard to take for so many pages.

I wanted to like this novel, but I was mostly bored. This is not to say that Donna Tartt is not a good writer. I would be inclined to pick up another of her books if it were a bit shorter and had characters who demanded a place in your heart.

I know that a lot of people really love The Secret History. So, I want to hear all about it. What makes you adore (or despise) this book? 

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this is not going to be a book for me at all. I remember trying Tartt's other book (The Little Friend?) a few years ago and having to put it down because I was bored. Doesn't sound like this will engage me more!