Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History  Donna Tartt is one of those authors people talk about in hallowed tones.  She has written three books: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and most recently, The GoldfinchThe Secret History is considered something of a gold standard, which is even more remarkable given it was Tartt's debut effort.  With the publication of Tartt's latest novel getting so much press and attention I thought it was time to find out what all the fuss was about.  Since people adore The Secret History and it came first I decided to start there and work my way through Tartt's books from there.

The plot is relatively simple and yet it is a complex story.  Richard is the narrator and the newest member of an insular group of students attending Hampden College in Vermont.  They are all studying Greek and Latin under the tutelage of Julian.  It wasn't clear to me until the end why the students loved him so much, but near the end Richard notes that Julian had a way of taking a person with an inferiority complex and making him or her feel superior and better than anyone else.  Such is the case with Henry, Francis, twins Charles and Camilla, Bunny, and later Richard.  Julian convinces them and the school to let him take control of their academic careers such that the six students take all or nearly all of their classes with him, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the student body.

Henry seems the most enthralled with and the most like Julian.  He is intellectual and distant.  It is difficult to know what he's thinking.  If he is nice one wonders if it genuine kindness or part of manipulative plan.  Francis is gay and while not exactly in the closet, isn't entirely open about it either.   At the beginning of the novel Charles is a budding alcoholic and by the end he has fully committed to it.  Camilla is nice, pretty, and smart, but along with her twin, is very secretive.  Bunny is the odd man out.  He doesn't seem as intellectually inclined toward studying Greek and Latin as the others and yet he does.  Unlike the others, he isn't so cut off from the rest of the school, dating and otherwise making friends outside the Greek-Latin club.  He is loud, annoying and always asking the rest of the group to foot the bill.  Enter Richard, a transfer from California.  Seeking to escape his working class background and the parents he has little connection with, he propels himself to Hampden College through sheer force of will and determination. 

*** Spoiler Alert: I usually try to avoid spoiling a book but it is hard to talk about this book without spoiling it.  Besides, it has been out more than 20 years so I don't feel too bad about spoiling it.  In any case consider this fair warning.***

You've heard or seen this story before.  A group of friends commit a murder and at first appear to get away with it but how long will it be before they start turning on each other?  In an attempt to recreate a Bacchanal experience where they can lose themselves in the moment, Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla inadvertently kill a local farmer.  Richard hadn't been invited because at that point the others didn't know him that well.  Bunny was also excluded, but eventually connects his friends to the unsolved murder mentioned in the newspaper.  He doesn't exactly threaten or blackmail them outright, but he becomes ten times more annoying.  Bunny is the type of person who will figure out your weak spot and then go out of his way to poke it on a regular basis.  With the knowledge of the killing he pokes his friends' weak spots until they are red and raw.  He makes thinly veiled references to the farmer's death in public.  He invades people's privacy.  Bunny is like a child jumping up and down trying to get his parent's attention.  So the others decide to kill him and this time Richard, who is eventually told about the Bacchanal by Henry, helps.  It all goes down hill from there.

The first killing was an accident.  Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla feel bad about it.  Not so bad that they are willing to confess and go to jail over it, but they do feel bad.  With Bunny they cannot pretend it was anything other than murder.  The police investigate. The FBI is called in.  The four plus Richard live in a panic that their crime will be discovered. But it isn't the police or the FBI they have to fear.  It is each other and their own conscience.  Francis starts having panic attacks.  Charles'  drinking escalates to an alarming degree.  Charles and Henry start feuding.  Camilla finds herself caught between Charles and Henry.  Richard is generally the most level headed.  Though he is now a member of the group, he is still a little bit of an outsider and doesn't discover until later the reasons for much of the fighting among Charles, Henry, and Camilla.

The Secret History is a very cerebral book.  The two deaths that occur are just set pieces while the focus is on how the people involved handle it.  It takes a toll on all of them psychologically and even physically.  Everything happens quickly and slowly at the same time.  Their secret binds them together while at the same time tearing them apart.  Beyond their terrible secret, it isn't clear that some of these students would be capable of surviving on their own.  Francis is willing to marry a woman to avoid being cut of financially from his family, as the thought of having to support himself is untenable.  Charles and Camilla's job experience seems to be limited to clerking at a relative's law firm and even they admit the job doesn't entail much.  Henry, the unspoken leader, seems the most capable of surviving a college and becoming a fully realized adult but in the present, Richard is the only one who has really had to work for anything.  In short, they are so incredibly fragile.  Without Julian and his Greek-Latin classes, it is hard to imagine how any of them, with the exception of Richard and Bunny, would have survived college let alone life after college.  (Bunny would have survived on the goodwill of friends and girlfriends.) The addition of the secret all but crushes them.

I enjoyed The Secret History.  It was entertaining and thought provoking.  Even though it is revealed on the first page that a murder was committed and by whom, I was still compelled to read on.  It takes a lot of good writing to keep a reader reading when they already know who did it.

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