Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt is a close friend of Brett Easton Ellis, he of Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and so on. One suspects that this friendship powerfully influenced both her writing and her relationship with the book publishing industry.

The Secret History reads a bit like Less Than Zero meets Dead Poets Society. Set primarily on the wooded grounds of an upper-crust Vermont liberal arts university, this epic novel is the tale of a middle-class California teen who goes off to college, is seduced into a world of wealth, elitism, and intellectualism. Under the tutelage of their classics professor, a small group of students descend into a lifestyle which shrugs off currently accepted social mores. There are consequences.

On one level, this novel reads like a “going off to college” bildungsroman. On another level it’s a great social satire filled with cokeheads, cheap sex, buffoonish administrators, ignorant townies, and so one. Hanging in the dark skies above all of this, is a fairly tightly written psychological thriller.

The novel is long and loses it’s focus periodically, but it is (given the potentially dry nature of a story about a classics club) quite engaging. I was pulled forward through the entire thing in about four late night sessions by a burning desire to know how things would work out for Bunny, Henry, Camilla, Francis and the rest.

And on some level, this is the book’s greatest success: Like the protagonist, you can’t help yourself being impressed and enchanted by these awful characters and feeling like you want to keep on knowing them. By the bloody final reckoning the reader has become as much a part of the Secret History of our ill-fated group of outcasts as the narrator.

Good stuff. Well written, if far from perfect.

Thanks for the loan, Senator.

1 comment:

Senator said...

You are most welcome for the loan of the book. I must say that I got the idea from my friend Professor Duncan Grieg, a genetics professor at University College London. He recommended it (and others) as we were talking literature over many, many pints one evening.

I agree with your take on the book but would also add that it is not for everyone. While I found the characters fascinating (as did Duncan -- hence the recommendation) his partner Meg found them to be insufferable, spoiled rich kids. That part didn't bother me (in fact, given the dark and twisted tale, I found them to be great anti-heroes to tell it) but it might be off-putting to some.