Thursday, November 03, 2011


The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Alfred A Knopf, 1992, 524 pp

My October reading was a month of books set in schools and books with references to the Greeks. The Secret History fell into both categories. I read the book for a reading group meeting that never happened. It was chosen by the group's leader because it is one of her all time favorite books. It took me a full week to read and it did not become one of my all time favorite books, yet it left a strong impression. It is a book I will never forget.

The school theme actually began for me in September, appropriately enough, with Alexander Masik's You Deserve Nothing, featuring the charismatic teacher Will Silver. The Secret History (set in Vermont at Hamden College, a fictional somewhat progressive institution and featuring five students and their eccentric Greek professor Julian Morrow) follows these students through one year during which they commit two murders and try to live with the hell they have created for themselves.

Steeped in literary references, the chill of a Vermont winter, the peculiar madnesses that afflict each character, the novel is atmospheric, dreamlike, and haunting. All of the above are elements in many unforgettable books I have loved: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfeld; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafon; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; The Likeness, by Tana French and many more. Curious that I can't think of any written by Americans.

Donna Tartt is clearly well read and brilliant. It makes sense that she was raised in Mississippi and educated in New England. The students in the novel are the sort of oddball tortured misfits I always sought out in college. But I had one heck of a time reading the novel.

The plot takes forever to get going. Huge chunks of text go by with the five friends just hanging out and each one of these chunks felt like a repeat of the ones that came before. Richard Papen, who tells the tale and is something of an outsider in the group because of his widely different roots and upbringing, spends pages maundering about what happened. He is a pawn in the strange games that these kids are acting out and gets used and fooled by everyone else. He is also not quite believable as a male though he acts more like a guy that the other three male friends while he falls in love with Camilla, the only female. Camilla herself is practically androgynous.

Even in the second half of the book, where an actual plot becomes apparent, I felt I could not grab hold of anything to anchor me as a reader. Possibly that is a problem most of us had in college. What with the drinking, the drugs, the casual sex, the bad food and the lack of sleep, it all becomes an amorphous daze until we either dropped out or graduated.

Which goes a long way to explaining why the novel has hung around and haunted me for the past two weeks since I finished it. College is a strange rite of passage during which people aged 18 to 21 are not really responsible for anything yet have left home. Somehow one's college years don't count for much in the real world, whether you studied your head off, partied continuously or committed murder. Yet whatever one did in those years follows you for the rest of your life just as deeply as if you had spent those years fighting in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. At least that seems to be Richard's conclusion ten years later.

I might need to read The Secret History again someday. By the way, after I finished the book I found a website called Book Drum with a deconstruction of this novel. All the phrases in other languages are translated, the cultural references explained, and the literary figures introduced. Working my way through all that explication, I had to admit that Donna Tartt is way more intelligent and much better educated than I. Part of my problem with her novel may have been that I was in over my head.

(The Secret History is available in hardcover, paperback and audio cassette by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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