Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

First, a confession: I am a HUGE fan of Brett Easton Ellis. No one, and I mean no one, does a better job portraying young people's ennui and depression and angst.

Given that, with the exceptions of American Psycho, Glamorama, and Lunar Park, his stories are plotless wonders. Along with Jay McInerny, Donna Tartt is one of BEE's contemporaries; indeed, the characters (and the authors themselves) flow readily through all of this literary ratpack's stories. The Secret History is one of those books I'd always wanted to read, so I plopped the title on my List of 50. A yardsale last weekend netted me the book for a mere quarter, so let's get to it...

"Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

So starts Richard Papen's tale about a year spent at an elite liberal arts college in isolated Vermont. A working-class transplant from Plano, California, Richard soon becomes one of a small, close-knit group of unusual students tutored in the classical literature and language under the tutelage of the erudite and mysterious Julian. In the story, Richard reflects on the situations and events that led to a murder within the group of six students.The novel explores the circumstances and consequences of his murder on each of the characters. The impact of the murder of the surviving students is ultimately destructive.

The Secret History sucked me in, first on the strenght of the prose. Tartt writes densely, yet concisely, her voice is poetic in places, mirroring the classic education that immeresed the characters. And the characters are the second hook: Henry, the aloof, brilliant intellectual leader; Francis, the beautiful, sexually conflicted man; the twins Charles and Camilla, inextricably intertwined; Bunny, the insecure and needy victim; and Richard, the narrator who seeks absolute beauty in his flight from the coarseness of Plano. These are characters not easily forgotten.

Sex, drugs, debauchery, and violence weave through the story, oblique rather than explicit, a subtle contrast to Ellis' work. The characters and their actions waver on the edge of unbelievable, but Tartt manages to make all seem quite plausible. On a deeper level, the story follows a plotline similar to that of a Greek tragedy; indeed, literary references and allusions litter the story, often to distraction. The themse are classic as well: allusion of beauty versus reality, societal constraints versus complete freedom sans mores and conscience, relationships in a social context versus private relations.

The story started slowly, then dragged me in with talons. I carried the book with me everywhere, to the annoyance of my family. But then, about 100 pages from the end, the book sputtered to a slow, yawning finish. The epilogue ruined the story for me; a hasty recap of 'where are they now'?

In sum, a worthwhile read, but get comfortable before cracking the spine; at nearly 600 pages, it is not quick read. Peace, Linda


moonrat said...

Gosh, you SO make me want to reread this. I read it when I was 16 and loved it... but I wonder how much more of it I would understand now.

Thanks for the very thoughtful review!

Linda said...

Ah, the power of persuasion. It's those damn query letters that make me able to sell everyone's work but my own ;^) Peace, Linda