The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I attended a liberal arts school in the late sixties and early seventies, so I knew people who fit the mold of the main characters in The Secret History: reasonably smart, from well to do families, and generally acting as if our interests were less valuable than theirs. I also knew a few students who were more interested in drugs and alcohol than anything else the university had to offer, including their classes. So Donna Tartt’s setup worked well for me. But in real life I didn’t get to follow the lives of those people as closely as I did in The Secret History where I found their self-centered reactions to the complex situation believable. I also found myself pulling for people who had done some horrible things.
The Secret History is a crime novel from the point of view of one of the criminals. That’s clear from the beginning, so this isn’t a spoiler. Richard Papen is an impulsive young man with a family that doesn’t want him around. He picks his college for arbitrary reasons and picks his major because overcoming the challenge of signing up for Greek is more important than thinking of his future. Right away we see his decisions are a little edgy, but we like and sympathize with him. I find Richard very believable in the context of the novel. I know some reviewers have felt Tartt’s male characters are not male enough. Perhaps Richard thought a little too much about what he and his friends were wearing, but other than that I had no trouble with his masculinity.
Henry Winter and Bunny Corcoran are the two most interesting characters in the book. In a way they flip roles over the course of the book. Although, there are other things going on that push them in unique directions. I can't say much more than that without revealing the plot. Camilla and Charles are interesting in a very broad way, yet I didn't feel I got to know them as well as the other students of Julian Morrow. And every college has its Judy Pooveys, who might be attracted to someone or interested in something that's going on, but always too stoned to care. The teacher, Julian, is also fascinating because he epitomizes the concept of a college environment as a sanctuary where ideas can grow and anything can be discussed, but he has been living this ideal for so long he's lost all concept of the way events stimulated by his ideas can affect him. As the story unfurls, his reactions are wonderful.
The main characters in The Secret History meet as students in a Greek class. This, however, is unlike any language class I ever took. It's more about thinking and philosophy than it is about communication or reading. Here's a quote about that subject. Richard Papen is reflecting on something Julian Morrow has taught him:
The value of Greek prose composition, he said, was not that it gave one any particular facility in the language that could not be gained as easily by other methods but that if done properly, off the top of one's head, it taught one to think in Greek. One's thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation.
It seems like a wonderful thing, to gain a new way of thinking, but it depends on what the new ideas are.
What I liked the most about the book was the slow way Donna Tartt built her plot, carefully giving her readers enough information about her characters to believe the plot was progressing. I read this book and I’m currently listening to the audio of Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. I waited to finish this one before starting The Goldfinch. They aren’t linked in any way, so the order doesn’t matter, but the style is similar. I’m glad I didn’t try to read them both at the same time. But they are both great reads.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
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