Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

"I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in tat cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me? 

It's funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn't see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do."

The Secret History was suggested to me - it was described as having all the things I loved about The Goldfinch and was perhaps a better read as well. It has, unfortunately, been a little too long since I've read it to do a proper review, but it's too good of a book to not mention it at all. 

It does have some things in common with The Goldfinch: male narrator, flashback frame story, the idea of the point in which a life is divided into Before and After, a cast of characters who are easy to love. It is, however, more sinister and not necessarily because of the content. It opens with:

"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...We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found" 

and continues in Tartt's signature fetchingly lovely prose: 

"Walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure."

It is not this act that makes the novel more sinister but the way people are not who they are supposed to be and all the consequences - intended or not - of that. 

Richard is a poor California boy at a rich East coast college. He had studied Greek before transferring, but is denied entrance into the Greek class by the professor, Julian, who cannot possibly take more than five students. Richard becomes enchanted by the group of students - who take almost all their classes with Julian. 

 "the more I heard about [Julian], the more interested I became, and I began to watch for him and his little group of pupils around campus. Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party - at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities."

After helping the group with a difficult translation and buying a nice used suit, he is granted admission into Julian's class which is intoxicating. He goes from being a poor nobody to part of an elite group of pretentious snobs who approve of him. It's like Mean Girls for booknerds. I totally related to Richard and wanted simultaneously to be one of Julian's students and/or to be the kind of teacher Julian is:

"[Julian] refused to see anything about any of us except our most engaging qualities, which he cultivated and magnified to the exclusion of all our tedious and less desirable ones...the magnificent roles he had invented for us: genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus - smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich." 

Donna Tartt is truly a masterful storyteller. She opens with the dead body, very quickly tells the whole story of whodunit, and then jumps into a suspense novel that I couldn't put down. Based on the strength of this and The Goldfinch, I think I will devour any future novels by Ms. Tartt. 


Dani said...

I read this book last year and adored it as well. I had the same reaction you did to Julian's group, with the added bonus of being reminded of a beloved college professor. It also made me want to study the classics again in a more serious way. There was something enchanting about being a part of that coterie; there was also something terrifying about it, but investigating that would be a spoiler.

Christopher said...

Are Julian and his class good or bad? The way you describe it reminds me of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Dani said...

I think "good or bad" may be too simple. I definitely wouldn't characterize any of them as good. I think they would say that they are above such trite moralizing. In a way they are so removed from society in their own group that they aren't subject to the laws of society. It strikes me as an exercise similar to Raskolnikov's (at least on the part of one character). ***SPOILER*** Predictably, the result is similar, though not identical in a way that also feels like a commentary on wealth in 20th Century America.